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Way Cool Scientist!

If you were a planetary explorer, what's the first thing you'd grab at the store before cruising off to a distant solar system (other than a bag of Chili Cheese Fritos)? You'd pick up a camera, of course! There's nothing more satisfying than boring your family and friends with snap shots of your travels. Well, the camera that will be used on the next Mars Exploration Rover mission is no point-and-shoot gadget, and it's anything but boring. And, the photographic images aren't just 'snap shots' or mere mementos-they are the roadmaps to new discoveries.

The Athena Microscopic Imager is a high-resolution camera that will be used to take close-up pictures of Mars in 2004. It's a component of the Mars Exploration Rover (or MER for short), and since scientists can't actually go to the Red Planet, the Rover is the next best thing. Ken Herkenhoff, our latest 'Way Cool Scientist' works closely with the engineers at JPL (the Jet Propulsion Lab) to make sure the cameras are in tip-top shape. The images captured on this mission will give us a detailed view of the soil and rocks, and a more revealing glimpse of the Martian landscape. "We haven't yet seen Mars at the scale that we expect to see in MI images," says Herkenhoff, "so I'm looking forward to it."

Ken is a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. He's also a member of the science team for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission in 2005. Ken is involved in research projects for NASA and future missions to Mars, but these days, most of his time is spent calibrating the MER cameras at the Jet Propulsion Lab and determining exactly how the instruments will respond to light. The team will then be able to measure how the rocks and soils on Mars reflect light; "this will tell us why the rocks look the way they do," says Herkenhoff.

In 1964, when Ken was six years old, his great grandmother gave him The Golden Book of Astronomy as a Christmas gift. He was fascinated by the planets. "Not much was known about them then, at the dawn of the space age," Herkenhoff recalls. "As more was learned about the planets during the early flyby missions, my interest grew." After the Apollo moon landings, Ken knew he wanted to be a planetary astronomer. He enjoyed hiking and backpacking as a Boy Scout and later recognized that he was interested in geomorphology, the study of the shapes of landforms.

He earned a bachelor's degree in geology from UC Berkeley. This background prepared him for graduate studies in planetary science at Caltech. He used computers to process digital images of the Martian terrain. His doctoral thesis was on the geology of the polar layered deposits on Mars. "These deposits probably record climate variations on Mars-similar to ice ages on Earth," Herkenhoff explains. After working as a post-doc at the Jet Propulsion Lab for two years, he was hired as a regular employee.

A few years later, he became involved with the Mars Pathfinder mission, serving as the liaison between the lander camera science team and the JPL project. He was responsible for many of the camera command sequences and for the science planning. "The most exciting point in my career so far was the Mars Pathfinder landing-it was risky, and we didn't know whether it would work or not, " says Herkenhoff. "I had been working for weeks on the design of the 'Mission Success Panorama', the first color panorama taken after landing. When the panorama showed the Twin Peaks beyond the Sojourner rover, I was thrilled!"

While Herkenhoff enjoys scientific research, the most exciting part of his job has been the missions. "Exploring Mars and making discoveries is very exciting. MER has the potential to top Pathfinder, as the twin rovers will be like field geologists on Mars." Ken hopes that the Mars exploration program continues and he hopes to be involved with future missions. "Much can be done with robots on Mars, but I doubt that they will ever have the scientific capabilities of a well-equipped geologist-astronaut. So, I hope to see a geologist walking on Mars before I retire."