December 1, 2006

Astronomy Professor Bell Exhibits Artwork From Mars

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The newly released photography book of Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy, is truly out of this world.

“Postcards from Mars” features over 150 high definition photographs of the red planet — all of them taken over the past three years by the “Pancam” color cameras of the two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The shots were carefully selected from a pool of 160,000 photographs.

Last night at the Ithaca Sciencenter, Bell, the lead scientist of the Mars Rover “Pancam” Color Cameras project, shared some of the images and the stories of the ongoing red planet exploration.

Bell began by elaborating on the logistics of developing the cameras for the two rovers that were launched on two separate space rockets by NASA over the summer of 2003. The “Pancam” cameras, crafted to withstand Mars’ extremely cold temperatures that reach -140 degrees, are complex machines that can spin the full 360 degrees. The rovers themselves are equipped with a number of scientific tools that are used to carry out all sorts of scientific probing of the red planet’s soil.

The arms of the rovers, called Instrument Deployment Devices (IDDs), were developed by Honeybee Robotics, a small Manhattan-based engineering firm. According to Bell, Honeybee was on a tight schedule and could not afford to stop working when the 9/11 attacks occurred. To commemorate the tragic events, Honeybee’s engineers incorporated pieces of the destroyed World Trade Center in the design of the IDDs on both rovers.

After a careful consideration, scientists involved with the project chose the Gustav Crater and the Meridiani Planum as the landing sites for Spirit and Opportunity.

Spirit was the first to reach its landing spot on the red planet in January 2004. In the past three years, the rover had traveled approximately four miles. Bell suggested that the somewhat slow pace is attributed to both the safety issues as well as to the opportunities for research. Additionally, the rover receives commands from Earth only once per day.

“There is a constant balance between safety and interesting; [if the rover tips over], the mission is over; there is no AAA to help us out,” he said.
One of the first photographs taken by Spirit that Bell showcased last night was “Distant Hills,” a panoramic shot that exposes the extensive rocky landscape of Mars.

“Empty Nest,” the second photograph, was taken after the rover had successfully rolled off of its landing pad.

“[It is] a very emotional picture for many [scientists involved with the project],” said Bell.

Bell said that Mars photographs have both historical and scientific value. In this manner, shots like “Sandia: Light and Shadow,” “Sunset Picture” and “El Dorado” are some of the first representations of the Martian landscape, while the other, more detailed macro photographs expose Martian geology and are invaluable to scientific research.

Currently, Spirit is beginning to resume its normal operations as Mars’ winter is ending and solar power on which the rover runs is once again becoming available. Unfortunately, in the course of its journey over the rocky terrain, one of Spirit’s six wheels was damaged and now the rover has to move backwards, dragging the broken part behind. Even so, the malfunctioning wheel proved to be beneficial, as it had dug up some mineral deposits.

The second rover, Opportunity, landed on Meridiani Planum shortly after Spirit’s deployment at the Gustav Crater, and it has already traveled a distance of almost six miles. Opportunity started out at a location called “Eagle” and is currently stationed southward at “Victoria.”
Bell concluded his presentation by addressing the question on many peoples’ minds: “How long will rovers keep going?” As of today, they have been operational for 1,034 days.

“No one knows [how long they will keep going]; I’ve called them wild animals released into their natural habitat,” said Bell.

Prof. Barry Perlus, art, reflected on Bell’s lecture from an artistic perspective.

“From an artist’s point of view [these photographs] are interesting to see; one of the appeals is seeing into something that hasn’t been seen before,” he said.