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Rover vehicle will explore Martian surface ---- but student-built, full-size model at Cornell will remain down to earth
Feb 15, 2002

Seen with the MER model are some of its student builders, from left, Ithaca College freshman Emily Dean; from Cornell, Phil Chu, mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) '02; Renee Hillaire, MAE '02; team leader Miles Johnson, MAE '02; Heather Arneson, MAE '02; Matt Siegler, physics/film '03. Cornell News Service photo by David BrandCopyright Cornell UniversityITHACA, N.Y. -- The Mars Exploration Rover, one of the two vehicles scheduled to explore the surface of Mars in 2004, is built and seemingly ready for its trip, complete with a full payload of scientific instruments---- about two years in advance.

But this is not the real rover. It is a finely detailed, full-scale model made out of wood, plastic and aluminum that will be put on display in science museums throughout central New York state. It has been built by eight university and two high school students working with Steven Squyres, Cornell University professor of astronomy, who is the principal investigator on the Athena science payload to be carried by the long-range rovers.

Since last summer the students have been designing, machining and constructing the rover replica. Its folding solar-panel "deck" has a span of nearly 8 feet by more than 5 feet, and the height from the wheels to the top of the tallest instrument is nearly 5 feet.

"As part of the NASA mission we regularly do educational outreach, but this time we wanted to do a multi-faceted effort that included not only work with schools but also would get the general public involved," says Diane Sherman, Athena project coordinator at Cornell's Department of Astronomy. "When we build models of space vehicles, they are generally not full size. But for this rover, Steve [Squyres] wanted to do full-size model and get the students involved in design and construction."

Adds Sherman, "The students have done a phenomenal job."

Painstakingly, they carved the rover and its suite of scientific instruments out of everyday materials. "The only off-the-shelf items we used were the bolts," says team leader Miles Johnson, a Cornell mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) senior. The wheels are made from plywood sheets glued together, cut and then lathed. The folding solar panels are made of spray-painted Plexiglas. The high-gain and low-gain antennas and the panoramic camera (Pancam) are

aluminum and plastic. And, extending from the rover, like a prehensile, metal claw, is a suite of tools and cameras and spectrometers used for a close-up look at Martian rocks ---- an assembly machined from aluminum by Heather Arneson, a Cornell MAE senior. "It was very time-consuming," Arneson recalls.

The solar panel deck even includes a model of the 3.25-inch-square sundial that is being sent to Mars aboard the rovers. Once the spacecraft has landed, the Pancam will monitor the sundial's shadow. Then the sundial lines can be put into the correct position and superimposed over the image of the sundial as it appears on the Web.

The rover model is one of several contributions that young Cornellians have made to the 2004 Mars landing mission. Students also helped design and build a calibration target for two of the Athena science instruments and participated in the calibration of rover cameras at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, Calif. And Dan Maas, a recent Cornell graduate, has produced a computer-generated video of the mission for NASA that dramatizes the Mars mission with startling accuracy.

The students who built the rover model include Ithaca College freshman Emily Dean; and from Cornell, in addition to Johnson and Arneson, Phil Chu, MAE '02; Renee Hillaire, MAE '02; and Matt Siegler, physics/film '03.

The Mars Exploration Rover mission, scheduled for launch in 2003, is managed for NASA by JPL.

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