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,
"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."