Athena science payload, instruments bound for Mars aboard NASA rover,
arrives at Cape Canaveral
FOR RELEASE: March 12, 2003
Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
ITHACA, N.Y. — Culminating a six-year development and building process
led by Cornell University's Steven Squyres, the second of two Mars-bound
clusters of scientific instruments, called the Athena payload, arrived
March 11 at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The instruments will ride aboard NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers,
scheduled for separate launches beginning May 30 and June 25.
"I've poured my heart and soul into this project, and the instruments
feel almost like children to me. Starting in two weeks or so, the
rovers will each be put onto their respective landers, the petals
surrounding them will be closed and we'll never see them again," says
Squyres, Cornell professor of astronomy and the principal investigator
for the Athena science payload. "It's going to feel strange to say
Carried as the science payload on each of the rovers, the Athena
instruments promise to provide the most vivid images and to conduct the
most comprehensive geologic examination yet of the Martian surface. The
mission seeks to determine the history of the planet's climate while
looking for sites that provide evidence of whether water once flowed and
whether life once might have been possible.
"This will be a whole new experience for Martians like us," says James
Bell, Cornell assistant professor of astronomy and payload element lead
for the panoramic cameras, known as Pancams, carried by both rovers as
part of the Athena packages. The cameras will provide high-resolution,
20/20 images, Bell says. "With this camera, we'll be able to capture the
planet's sweeping landscapes and beautiful vistas. We don't know exactly
what it will look like where we land, so we'll need the Pancam to help
decide which way to go."
The airbag-enclosed, pyramid-shaped landers carrying the rovers will
bounce onto the Martian surface three weeks apart next January. After
that, the rovers will explore the surface through the winter and spring
of 2004, each lasting 90 Martian days, or "sols" (a Martian sol is
slightly longer than an Earth day). The rovers might be capable of
traveling up to 100 yards per sol under ideal conditions, which is as
far as NASA's Sojourner rover traveled during its entire mission in
In addition to the Pancam, the Athena instruments include a microscopic
imager, three spectrometers (Mössbauer, alpha particle X-ray and
infrared) and a rock abrasion tool, or RAT, to scrape away the outer
layers of Martian rock. Other institutions that have helped build the
payload include NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the U.S.
Geological Survey, Arizona State University, Honeybee Robotics, the
University of Mainz in Germany, the Max Planck Institut für Chemie in
Mainz and the University of Copenhagen. JPL, in Pasadena, Calif.,
manages the Mars Exploration Rover mission.
Squyres and his research team have collaborated with engineers from JPL
to integrate the Athena payloads with the rovers and to verify that the
instruments can withstand the airbag landing, patterned on the Mars
Pathfinder mission six years ago.
Additionally, the Athena team of more than 120 scientists from the
United States, Germany, Denmark and other nations needed to prove that
the instruments will work at frigid temperatures in the planet's meager
atmosphere. It is common for Martian nights to dip to minus 90 degrees
Centigrade (minus130 degrees Fahrenheit). "On the Martian surface
there's a huge change in temperature from day to night. The instruments
will expand and contract, so we put a lot of effort into thermal
testing," says Squyres. Final testing of the Athena instruments will
take place over the coming weeks at Cape Canaveral.
A full-scale rover model is on display at the Sciencenter, a science
museum in Ithaca. In May, the model will move to its permanent home at
the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in
On a bulletin board outside Squyres' Cornell office is a countdown to
the first launch. With the instruments safely at Cape Canaveral, Squyres
is relieved. "We've got a date with a rocket in May and June," he says.
"The planets are lining up, and it's time to head for Mars."
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