September 30, 2008

Mars Rover Moves Forward

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Deep within the Space Sciences Building, a team of Cornell’s faculty and students, led by Prof. Steven Squyers ’82, astronomy, is working diligently to lead the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. The Opportunity Rover, one of two rovers on Mars, has begun a 12-kilometer journey to the Endeavour Crater, hoping to gather data about the history of Mars and to learn more about the origins of our solar system and the universe.
Squyres, the principal investigator for the MER mission, became involved in the exploration of Mars in his junior year at Cornell when he answered an advertisement to work on the Viking mission. The Mars probe has since formed the basis for much of our current knowledge about Mars.
From working on that project, his interest in astronomy sparked. After obtaining his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Cornell, he became involved in the MER mission, which began in 1987. The MER Mission is headquartered at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, where Squyers is currently on sabbatical.
In 2003, two rovers were launched toward Mars: Spirit and Opportunity. They arrived on the planet in 2004. The goal for the rovers, according to Squyers, was to learn more about the conditions in the early history of Mars. We know that there was a source of water on the planet, but researchers are still trying to determine the extent of any life that there was on Mars.
The rovers were designed for a three-month probe. But research has since continued, as the rover still functions properly. Using solar power, the rovers have now spent almost five years on the planet.
“We have spent $900 million on the project, so as long as they keep working, we will still use them,” Squyers said.
Although Squyers is in Pasadena, he maintains close contact with his team in Ithaca, speaking consistently by phone.
At Cornell, the fourth floor of the Space Sciences Building is dedicated to the MER Mission. Researchers cover everything from atmospheric study to geological survey.
Melissa Rice grad works as a Payload Downlink Lead. Her role is to look at images every day from both rovers and assess the functionality of the cameras. She expressed her excitement about the project, saying, “I came to Cornell because I wanted to work with the rovers.”
But she acknowledged that the journey from Victoria Crater, where Opportunity is now, to Endeavour Crater will not be easy.
“[Although] I think there’s a slim chance of making it [to Endeavour], there is a lot of great science on the way to the crater,” Rice said.
Squyers also agrees that the trip will be difficult. However, this is the next logical step for the MER project. As Opportunity moves south towards the crater, the rocks get younger, and groundbreaking analyses can be performed.
Although the basis of the MER project is geologic, there is also other work being done. Prof. Don Banfield, astronomy, is a Science Team Affiliate with the MER Mission. His expertise is in the atmospheric study of Mars, from cloud cover to dust particles in the atmosphere.
“We have to be as clever as we can … in going through the images … to try and understand the atmosphere [of Mars],” Banfield said, adding that the bulk of the work with the MER Mission is with the geological survey of Mars’ landscape. He hopes that the expedition to Endeavour Crater will lead to more time for the atmospheric study of Mars.
After two years in the Victoria Crater, Squyers and his team are ready to move on. The 12-kilometer journey to Endeavour Crater, if successful, will take approximately two years. However, the abuse that Opportunity will take on the journey is enormously more than it was designed to take, according to Squyers.
For Squyers, and all who are involved, this journey is just the next step for the project. “Whether we make it or not, it’s the right direction to go. It’s a challenge. And, it’s really exciting.” Squyers said.