January 22, 2004

Cornell Professors Land Rover on Red Planet

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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.

Historically, two-thirds of attempts at landing crafts on Mars have failed. But for Prof. Steven Squyres, astronomy; Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy and the students and recent graduates who, in conjunction with NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), landed the Spirit rover on Mars last week, their nationally televised triumph is only the beginning. The rover’s twin, Opportunity, is slated to land this Saturday on the other side of the planet.

For many of those involved, the mission’s importance stems not just from its scientific value or even the much-needed public relations triumph it has lent NASA, but from the genuine pioneering it does on behalf of the American public and renewed interest in exploring space.

“Besides making important science discoveries,” Squyres said in a recent Associated Press interview, “this mission will also help to rekindle a public passion for space exploration.”

Now, however, the team’s celebration of the hard-won landing on an unforgiving planet has died down and the real work, mostly lead by Cornellians, is beginning. This work involves deciding where the rover will travel and which of the artifacts strewn across the landscape should be studied. It also involves sorting through and developing the raw imagery data that Spirit streams back once or twice daily. The pictures are adjusted to appear as closely as possible as they would if the viewer were on Mars. Judging from the public interest and excitement, the imagery team and the rover have done their jobs. “These are the highest resolution pictures of Mars ever obtained,” Bell said. “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 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.

Even Prof. James Maas Ph.D. ’66, psychology, has brought his sleep studies expertise to the board, holding workshops to prepare the team for the rigors of the 24 hour, 39 minute Martian day by which the team has been working. In return, Maas has been given the chance to study what changes the truly alien sleep patterns have had on the team. “While we were doing our own experiments, there was the opportunity for us to be the subject of someone else’s experiment,” Squyres said.

The Mars Exploration Rover team still has much work to do, especially as the teams split in half to work opposite shifts when Opportunity lands. However, the team has deftly tackled problems with the rover’s high-gain antenna and a false start due to parachute retraction problems. Although other complications are sure to arise, the benefit of seeing the planet from opposite hemispheres is more than enough to keep the team running in high spirits.

Archived article by Michael Morisy