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CU astronomers prepare for first of two Mars launches, two weeks away
May 22, 2003

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.

With the launch of the first Mars Exploration Rover just a fortnight away, Cornell astronomers Steven Squyres and Jim Bell have been in Pasadena, Calif., testing detailed replicas of the Cornell-developed Athena science packages to be carried into space.

Squyres is the principal investigator for the scientific instruments to be carried by the two rovers when they are launched aboard Delta II rockets from Cape Canaveral on June 5 and on June 25. The two rovers promise to provide the most vivid images and to conduct the most comprehensive geologic examination yet of the red planet's 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 on Mars and whether life once might have been possible there.

NASA has chosen two Martian landing sites for the twin robotic rovers when they begin surface exploration early next year. The first site, at Gusev Crater, 15 degrees south of the planet's equator, is a giant depression that appears once to have held a lake. The other landing site, Meridiani Planum, located halfway around the planet from Gusev, about two degrees south of the Martian equator, is an area with deposits of gray hematite, an iron oxide. The mineral usually forms in the presence of liquid water.

The Cornell-led instruments that make up the Athena payload are the Pancam (panoramic camera), 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.

To enable robotic operation of the instruments, the scientists must spend hours practicing inter-planetary remote control -- indeed, they practiced nonstop for three days in mid-May. "This kind of rehearsing is most of what we'll be doing over the next eight months or so," said Squyres in his weekly journal on the Athena Web site, http://athena.cornell.edu/. "By the time we land next January, we're going to have to be very, very good at doing geology with robots on another planet."