April 3, 2003

Astronomy Dept. Travels to NASA

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Members of the Cornell Department of Astronomy are traveling across the country as they prepare to launch two major projects within the next three months. Cornell astronomers, engineers and other scientists have collaborated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) as well as two Mars exploration rovers.

Cornell faculty have lent a great deal of their expertise to both of these projects. Prof. James R. Houck, the Kenneth A. Wallace Professor of Astronomy, heads the team that designed the Infrared Spectrograph (IRS) carried on board the SIRTF.

Prof. Steven W. Squyres, astronomy, is in charge of the team that developed the Athena payload, which will provide images as well as analysis of the terrain of Mars. The payload will be carried on board the twin rovers. The rovers also contain panoramic cameras under the supervision of Prof. James F. Bell III, astronomy.

Test launches were conducted earlier this week at launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. According to Squyres, “We’re on schedule. It’s been very tight from the start, and it’s going to be very tight. The first launch is on May 30 and the second is on June 25. Just yesterday, there was a successful Delta launch off launch pad 17A, which is the one our first rover will be launched off of.”

Houck also commented on the test launches. “We launched a GPS satellite off the launch tower adjacent to ours and it was successful.” Houck also noted that the SIRTF payload is ready to be loaded.

Houck reported that because a launch scheduled for another mission before his was delayed a few days, SIRTF’s original launch date was pushed back, but that the official launch date is now April 18 and that “we’re ready to roll.”

The professors will be able to monitor the travel and arrival of their instruments from control centers at both Cornell and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

“There’s a radio transmitter system on board [the Mars Rovers] that allows us to communicate during the time after the launch until it gets to Mars. We’ll communicate with the spacecraft to make sure it’s on course. NASA also has a series of telescopes around the world called the Deep Space Network, and we keep in communication that way,” Bell said.

According to Bell, “Right after we land, like a tourist in a new land, we get the first pictures back. It will tell us where we are, what’s it’s like, the colors, the environment, the geology and it will tell us something about the rocks and minerals. [Then we ask], ‘Where do we want to go?’ We can travel up to 100 meters a day, and we’ve got the pictures to tell us where is the most interesting direction to go.”

Thousands of people have contributed to the various projects, according to Bell.

“There is a formal science team composed of 50 scientists from around the world. There are graduate students, undergraduates, staff and other researchers. There are several hundred people, something like 800 to 1,000 engineers … [there are] mechanical, software, all kinds of engineers, that have been involved since the early beginning. There are more than 1,000 people involved,” Bell reported.

The astronomy department has made consistent contributions to many major astronomical discoveries over the past few decades. The department claims affiliation not only with SIRTF and the Mars Rovers, but also with “the Contour mission, the Cassini mission to Saturn and the MRO>

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter],” Squyres said.

In addition, the “Arecibo [Observatory] is continually producing new discoveries, as is the case with [the] Palomar [Observatory],” Houck said.

According to Squyres, the future of the astronomy department is “hard to say. It’s a terrific department to be in. [We are] actively involved in a vast majority of all space flight missions. There’s SIRTF and we’ve got the Mars Exploration Rovers … All of this science is led by Cornell. It’s a very vibrant place to be; it’s really the forefront of space exploration.”

The scientists are enthusiastic about seeing their projects finally preparing for launch, and appreciate the group effort that has made their achievements possible.

“It’s very, very exciting that so many Cornell students are a part of this. Several dozen students have participated over the course of the project. [There have been] science, engineering and other [students] who have been involved in one way or another, and it’s very valuable having had students involved,” Bell said.

Professors Houck, Squyres and Bell are currently preparing for their respective launch days as they travel between Ithaca, Cape Canaveral and Pasadena. It is an exciting time for the Cornell astronomy department, and according to Houck, “it’s been a most magical last couple of decades.”

Archived article by Natalie Adams