November 21, 2005

C.U. Celebrates Rovers' Birthday

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“We signed up for 90 days worth of operations. We thought we might get 120 or 150. Today is day 669,” said Prof. Steven Squyres Ph.D. ’78, astronomy, principal investigator of NASA’s Mars exploration mission, after celebrating one Mars year of explorations with Spirit on Friday.

Spirit, one of two twin Mars rovers, was launched June 10, 2003 from Cape Canaveral and landed on the Red Planet January 4, 2004. One year on Mars is equivalent to roughly 670 days on Earth. The Astronomy department gathered in the Space Sciences building Friday to mark the occasion. Opportunity, Spirit’s counterpart on the mission, landed January 24, 2004 and is busy exploring an area of Mars 180 degrees away from Spirit’s.

The plan for the Thanksgiving holiday is to explore Seminole, an outcrop of rock discovered last week. Earlier this month, Spirit reached the summit of Husband Hill, achieving another success for the mission and sending new panorama images back to Earth.

The collection of images exhibited in Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art last Spring are currently on display at the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton.

Besides giving scientists a close look at the geography of Earth’s solar system peer, Spirit and Opportunity have made possible incredible progress in our understanding of Martian geology and climate.

“Fundamentally, the objective of the mission is to learn what environmental conditions were like on Mars early in the planet’s history,” Squyres said.

“What I cherish more than anything else is the opportunity to work with such an extraordinary group of people,” Squyres said of the faculty, staff, students and alumnae in attendance at Friday’s celebration.

Also speaking at the function were Prof. Joseph Veverka, chair of the astronomy department, and Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy, lead scientist for the Pancam color imaging system on the rovers. “They say necessity is the mother of all invention, and it may have been the mother of these rovers,” Bell quipped, “but [Squyres is] the father.”

Squyres first expressed interest in developing space flight hardware to travel to the surface of Mars in 1987. After a long process of designing an acceptable proposal, NASA selected Squyres to lead the mission to Mars.

“We finally got the go ahead from NASA to do these two rovers in 2000, we launched them in 2003 and we’ve been doing this ever since,” Squyres explained. “It was 16 years just to get this stuff to the launch pad.”

While the team expected a buildup of dust on the solar panels that supply energy to the rovers to shut them down within a few months of landing, a few strong gusts of wind have cleared the dust from the panels and given the rovers several breaths of new life.

“We try to operate them with a plan that makes sense for months, even a year or more in the future, but at the same time, each day we try to operate them like there’s no tomorrow because that could be the reality,” said Squyres.

Squyres narrates the extraterrestrial journey from conception to landing, and beyond, in his new book, Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet.

“It’s not a science book, its not an engineering book. It’s really an adventure story,” Squyres said of his work. “I wanted it to be very readable by anybody.”

Asked if he had any predictions for Spirit’s upcoming explorations, Squyres replied, “I gave up long ago making any kind of predictions. You can try to predict, you can try to guess, but Mars and the rovers keep surprising us and you have to just take it as it comes.”

Archived article by oshua Goldman
Sun Staff Writer