February 11, 2002

Area Students Present Mars Rover Replica

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A full-size replica of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) was presented on Saturday to about 50 community members at the Tompkins County Public Library. Two of these rovers will be sent by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to explore Mars in 2003.

With the building process continuing from last summer, the model was constructed by a total of seven Cornell University engineering students, one student from Ithaca College, and two local high school students. The students followed the design, which is the one proposed three years ago for the actual Mars rovers, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.


The Athena Science Payload consists of the instruments and tools for the Mars rovers. Prof. Steven Squyres, astronomy, and principal investigator on the Athena Science payload, worked with the students in constructing the replica.

With the Athena instruments, the twin rovers of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project will be simulating field geologists, exploring Mars’ climate history and searching for evidence of life and of water in its liquid state.

Diane Sherman, the Athena project coordinator at Cornell University’s Department of Astronomy, presented the model to the audience followed by a computer-animated film of the Mars rover launch and landing on the red planet, produced by Daniel Maas ’01.

“I’m involved in education and public outreach for this Mars project,” Sherman said. “We are interested in generating excitement in the public that matches the excitement among the researchers and students by getting them involved. The public is paying for the project and they should know about it and benefit from it.”

As discussed during the presentation, the launch date is set between May and July of 2003 for the first rover, and the other for the end of June 2003. According to Sherman, these two rovers will land at different sites on the surface of Mars, to be chosen this summer. The landing sites must be chosen carefully because as the rovers touch the ground, inflated airbags surround the rovers to cushion the fall, and could burst if landing on rocky land.

It will take seven to nine months for the rovers to travel to Mars, reaching the planet in January 2004. The vehicles are solar-powered and are capable of exploring for about three months or 90 Martian days (24.6 Earth hours) before the dust in Mars’ atmosphere builds up on the solar panels of the rover enough to prevent the vehicles from working more.

Sherman explained that adding wipers to the rovers would be impractical.

“The rover must be under a certain weight and there is always a money issue,” Sherman said.

Included in the Athena Science Payload are nine cameras and three antennas, that connect the scientists on Earth to the rover and the information it collects and stores in its computer.

Different types of spectrometers on the rover include the Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer or Mini-TES, which can determine minerals by infrared light and the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) used to uncover fresh rock. The Mossbauer spectrometer which can detect iron, evidence that there may have been liquid water in the past, and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) which can detect rock-forming elements are both contributions from Germany. Also, a group in Denmark is interested in the magnetic properties of the soil on Mars.

Each rover weighs about 150 kg (300 lbs.) and stands approximately 157 centimeters tall. One improvement of these rovers from the 1997 Mars Pathfinder Rover is that it is capable of traveling 100 meters per Martian day, while the Pathfinder traveled that much during its entire stay on Mars. The Pathfinder mission had a similar objective, to study the atmosphere and geology of Mars. The MER mission, however, has placed more of an emphasis on finding traces of past life on Mars.

“It was an awful lot of work,” said Heather Arneson MAE ’02, who was working on the project. “But to see it [the Mars rover replica] actually there is pretty cool.”

This Mars expedition is one in a series, part of NASA’s Mars long-range plan which continues until 2020. NASA is planning to send a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2005 and landers and rovers in 2007. They also are planning missions to bring back samples of Mars’ soil in 2014 and 2016 to uncover the mysteries of the red planet.

Archived article by Ritu Gupta