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Inside story on Mars rover science, chronicled on Athena Web site, started long before scheduled June 8 launch
June 12, 2003

By Bill Steele

It's the age of the Web Log, or "blog" You can go on the Web and read the journals of quite ordinary people. Or, you could read a running, first-hand account of the forthcoming missions to Mars from the researcher in charge of the science programs.

Steven Squyres, Cornell University professor of astronomy and principal investigator for the Athena science payload on the Mars Rover missions, reports weekly on the progress of the mission on the Athena Web site at http://athena.cornell.edu/.

Athena is the package of scientific instruments that will ride on each of two Mars rover vehicles that NASA plans to deliver to the surface of Mars early next year. The rovers will roam the Martian surface seeking clues to the geological history of the red planet and trying to determine if life ever existed there. Two identical rovers are scheduled to be launched on June 8 and 25, with the first scheduled to arrive on Mars on Jan. 4, 2004.

The Athena site includes other background material on the Mars missions, but Squyres' journal is the centerpiece. "Everything that's on the Web site supports that weekly update," says Pamela Smith, the Cornell astronomy department staffer who manages the site. "Everything is focused on giving information to the public about Athena."

Squyres' style is informal. "Well, we had our rst big rover operations test this week. It wasn't pretty, but it was a lot of fun," he reported May 10. "Think of it [operating the rover vehicle] as being like the rst walk-through by the cast members in a play," he wrote May 3. "We don't know all our lines yet. We don't know where the props are. And we sure aren't ready to perform in front of an audience."

"This is it: show time for MER-A," he wrote on May 31, eight days before the first launch. "The spacecraft is on the launch pad, healthy and ready to fly. We're working our way through all the pre-launch paperwork and review. you can't be too careful about this kind of thing! But

once that's all done, we'll be ready to go. And when it happens, years of work in preparation for flight will come to a thundering conclusion as our first Delta II climbs off pad 17A . I have no idea how it's going to feel."

The latest week's report appears on the first page as visitors enter the Web site. Usually, Smith says, there's an update every Tuesday. A link at the left of the page leads to an archive of all Squyres' postings since he started the journal in September 1999. Readers can review step-by-step accounts of the assembly and testing of the instruments to be carried by the Mars rovers, punctuated by reports on the success and failure of recent Mars missions.

Squyres started posting his journal, he says, because he wanted people to be aware of all the work that leads up to a space mission. "There's a tendency to hear about these things when they're flying, and you never hear what leads up to it. The whole story doesn't happen just on Mars," he explains. "For us, it's already been the adventure of a lifetime, and we haven't even launched yet."

Squyres openly describes the failures along with the successes but mostly talks about the problems that came up and what the team had to do to solve them. "It's been an emotional roller-coaster," he says, adding that he's had e-mail feedback from engineering students who say they really appreciate the opportunity to see the engineering ups and downs.

"Once we get to Mars and are driving around, I think people will have a better appreciation if they can go back and see what led up to it," he notes.

Elsewhere on the site are background articles on the mission, mostly written by Smith, who is a Cornell alumna and content editor of the site. There are photos and videos of the hardware and a timeline of Mars exploration from 1992 to 2004. A special section for teachers offers lesson plans that suggest using common items, such as muffins, for teaching tools to explain geology. A "Mars for Kids" page features experiments that can be done in the home and a "Special Report," hosted by Cornell alumnus Bill Nye, "The Science Guy." Visitors can post questions for the scientists, some of which are answered in a section called "Way Cool Scientist," which features rotating profiles of Athena team members.

In May, Smith reported that the site was averaging 2 million hits a month.