January 8, 2004

Cornell Profs Celebrate Mars Rover Landing

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They knew it was a long shot: since 1997, every attempt to return to the red planet had crashed, disintegrated, or simply disappeared without a trace. But for Prof. Steven Squyres, astronomy; Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy and the students and recent graduates who worked with the team that landed the Spirit rover on Mars last week, it was a risk worth taking.

“Besides making important science discoveries,” Squyres said in a recent AP interview, “this mission will also help to rekindle a public passion for space exploration.” That passion, many felt, was in need of a serious boost after a series of failed ventures to Mars and the spaceship Columbia disaster in February of last year, a tragedy which left seven dead and many questioning NASA’s safety measures.

Now, however, the NASA team celebrates a hard-won landing and is eagerly viewing the early images sent back by Spirit as it surveys the landscape around its landing site. “These are the highest resolution pictures of Mars ever obtained,” Bell said at a media press conference. “My reaction has been shock and awe.”

For Squyres, this adventure to the red planet began over a decade ago when he pitched the idea to NASA. Today, Squyres is the mission’s principle investigator, charged with planning where the rover will go once it leaves its landing site in the next few days. For the past three years, Squyres has commuted back and forth between Cornell, where he has been teaching Astronomy 280: Space Exploration, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, C.A., where he has been preparing for Spirit’s voyage.

“We hit the sweet spot,” Squyres. “We’re in a marvelous place.”

Bell, who teaches Astronomy 310: Planetary Image Processing, has also been in the spotlight as he heads the rover’s camera team. Called “the Ansel Adams of the space age” by Squyres, Bell worked with a team of students and researchers to perfect the ultra high-resolution camera. With a resolution of 1 millimeter per pixel and a free-roaming lens, the pictures coming slowly back to Earth are three to four times better than the ones Sojourner sent to an awestruck public in 1997.

That quality didn’t come easily, as Bell and his team worked for three years calibrating the color and focus of the camera, as well as creating custom software just to use it. Jonathan Joseph ’88 and Jascha Sohl-Dickstein ’01 worked on the software. Joseph’s software creates the stunning landscape mosaics — giving a sense of the vastness of the Martian landscape — while Sohl-Dickstein worked to create a program that performs spectral analysis functions, giving scientists a better understanding of the planet’s geological structure.

Miles Johnson ’02, Heather Arneson ’02 and Alex Hayes ’03 also worked on testing and calibrating the camera.

From an operations standpoint, Elaina McCartney and Jon Proton, Cornell mission planners for the rovers, now will play a big part in guiding Spirit across the rocky landscape and deciding what to investigate. “We’re taking the science objectives of the mission and turning them into a long series of commands,” McCartney said.

McCartney, Proton and others are analyzing the data and figuring out the best way to learn as much as possible during Spirit’s predicted lifespan of three months. Sometimes, that analysis comes down to modeling the landscape with what is at hand. “We do a lot of planning sitting on the floor with popsicle sticks and poker chips,” McCartney said.

Whether the tools are high-tech or low, the team is glad to simply be at their destination. “It’s weird to think we’re no longer pretending,” Proton said.

One low-tech tool of note is the first interplanetary sundial, conceived of by Bill Nye ’77 and used to both generate interest in the space program and calibrate the color and brightness of the pictures Spirit sends back.

The sundial, inscribed with “Mars” in seventeen different languages, also symbolizes the bonds Earth and Mars have: “Two Worlds, One Sun” is etched into the dial’s base. “The idea behind the sundial is to involve people in the passion, beauty and joy, the PBJ [of the program],” Nye said.

The Mars Exploration Rover team still has much work to do. Already, minor issues have cropped up, such as the high-gain antenna appearing to malfunction and the Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer’s health being questioned. NASA has since said both issues are resolved, and now only the rover’s bulky landing equipment — essentially a large airbag — stands in the way of Spirit and a vast world to explore. NASA has stated the airbag obstruction will not prove to be a serious obstacle.

Additionally, Spirit’s identical twin Opportunity is due to land Jan. 24 on the other side of the planet. As the second rover comes into action, Squyres, Bell and the rest of the Cornell and NASA team will have a lot of work to do, as well as a historic opportunity to learn about Earth’s neighbor.

Archived article by Michael Morisy