August 25, 2000

NASA Taps Cornell to Lead 2003 Mars Program

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced Aug. 10 that Cornell will play a leading role in designing the scientific instruments for two robotic rovers scheduled to arrive on the surface of Mars in 2004.

Cornell students will be working under the principal investigator for the mission, Prof. Steven Squyres, astronomy, to design and calibrate tools which will make up the ‘Athena payload’ that will be used by the rovers to collect Martian rock and soil samples.

The rovers will be identical and are scheduled to launch on separate Delta 2 rockets from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on May 22 and June 4, 2003 respectively. They will land on different locations on the red planet Jan. 2 and Jan. 20, 2000. The scope of the mission includes collecting panoramic and microscopic images of the terrain as well as studying specific places where water may have flowed or ‘ponded’ during the evolution of Mars.

Dan Maas ’01 designed a digital visualization, depicting the rovers cruising over the planet’s chaotic terrain, that premiered when NASA announced Cornell’s role in the mission.

The two minute clip illustrates how the six-wheeled rovers will parachute from the Martian sky and negotiate the crater-covered, rocky terrain. Maas worked with Squyres to produce a video that accurately describes the rovers’ landing procedure and scientific instruments, using blueprints from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where they will be built. Maas rendered nearly 3000 individual frames of animation by hand and then placed the rover in a landscape created by ‘massaging’ together panoramic images taken by the Mars Pathfinder.

Maas, who studies film, math and physics at Cornell attributes the production’s convincing realism to his familiarity with cinematographic techniques and digital tools.

“The entire thing is generated with a method somewhat similar to that used by the special effects studios that produced the Jurassic Park and Star Wars movies,” Maas said.

Maas is currently working with Cornell astronomers to develop a documentary narrative of NASA’s Contour mission, in which a Cornell-designed satellite will take rock samples from the tail of a comet.

Although Cornell astronomers have already been developing prototypes for the instruments that will be used by the rovers for three years, NASA’s announcement prompted enthusiasm from the faculty.

“This mission will be humanity’s first great voyage of exploration this new millennium,” Squyres told Cornell News Service earlier this month.

Mars’ topographical history is of special interest to astronomers because it exhibits unique geological features, such as canyons and possible waterways, which are very similar to those on earth. The six instruments that the rovers will use include an infrared camera, a Moessbauer spectrometer