January 26, 2005

Total Recall for Rover Team

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Four Cornell space scientists are part of a team planning NASA’s next Mars rover mission, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Scheduled for launch in 2009, the mission will explore the region for organic molecules to determine if Mars’ environment is suitable for potential life or has hosted life previously.

Prof. Steve Squyres Ph.D. ’81, astronomy, is part of two teams involved in the mission — the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and the Alpha-Particle-X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS). The SAM consists of a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer and a tunable laser spectrometer to detect organic compounds and conduct analysis of gases, while the APXS measures the abundance of elements in rocks and soil. Squyres is currently principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, which is conducting experiments with two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on opposite sides of the planet.

Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy, and researchers Peter Thomas and Rob Sullivan are conducting imaging experiments for the MSL mission, in collaboration with Malin Space Scientists Systems. Using the MSL mast camera, the team can obtain color imaging at various lengths, as well as high-definition video at 10 frames per second without the use of a rover computer.

Filmmaker James Cameron, the director of Titanic, is also collaborating with the team to work with the camera. Both Bell and Sullivan are also involved with imaging for the MER mission, while Thomas is working on the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Mars Global Surveyor cameras which have imaged Mars for over seven years, among other projects.

The MSL mission is expected to expand upon the success of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that are currently investigating Mars, while providing new insight on the planet’s surface chemistry and surface processes through a close-up examination of its minerals and topography.

“This mission has the capability to land more accurately than others [and] to enhance the chances of answering questions developed before the flight,” Thomas said in an e-mail. Squyres added, “The mission will have greater mobility, the ability to last longer and to drive longer distances. We will also have more of an ability to learn in detail about precise details of rocks and soil. It is a souped-up version of what we’ve done in the past.”

Despite the great leaps that space exploration has taken, Squyres finds it doubtful that humans will ever live on Mars. “We will send humans to do research but it is hard to believe that Mars will be a cozy, comfortable home for people,” he said. Comparing his research on Mars to similar to work done by scientists in Antarctica, Squyres said, “Mars, like Antarctica, is a target for research. It’s not the type of place you’d want to make a home.”

Thomas agreed with Squyres that humans will probably never make Mars their home. “Living on Mars is somewhat akin to living at 100,000 feet [altitude] on Earth,” he said. “It may at some point be technically feasible, but whether it would have a practical outcome is doubtful. As with 100,000-foot altitude on Earth, we know a lot about what goes on there, but we don’t have to live there to make use of that knowledge.”

Thomas said that the next step in space exploration to Mars will be returning samples to Earth. The MSL mission is expected to land on Mars in 2010 and should remain active for two years using its own energy source. It will be managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. for the NASA Science Mission Doctorate in Washington, D.C.

Archived article by Olivia Oran
Sun Staff Writer