Thursday, September 16, 1999

UH scientist makes
‘Mars Express’ team

By Helen Altonn


A University of Hawaii planetary scientist is one of about five U.S. investigators selected for a European Space Agency mission called "Mars Express."

Thomas McCord, in the Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, will be chairman of a working group developing specialized instruments for the Mars exploration mission in 2003.

His group will design and manage a spectro-radiometric instrument to measure radiation from sunlight reflected from the Mars surface. The scientists will work with German engineers to make sure the instrument is performing properly, plan the measurements and interpret the data, he said.

The main goal is to look for evidence of water such as oxidized minerals or land forms that would indicate the presence of water at one time, McCord said.

"In the process, obviously we'll be studying the geology, topography, the surface structure and mineralogy," he said.

He also is a lead U.S. co-investigator for an experiment on an Italian instrument for the European Space Agency's Rosetta Mission to a comet, scheduled for launch in 2002.

McCord said he has become involved in some of the European missions "as a way of the U.S. getting access to data from these missions, in addition to missions the U.S. runs on its own."

McCord serves on advisory committees to plan NASA missions and he was a leader in the Galileo mission to Jupiter.

He and his colleagues identified salts and features on Jupiter's satellite Europa suggesting water beneath the frozen surface. The search for water on the planets is also a search for evidence of a life-sustaining environment.

Evidence indicates that liquid water existed on Mars about 3.8 billion years ago when its atmosphere was much denser.

It's believed large quantities of flowing water or catastrophic floods shaped Martian features resembling valleys and dried-up riverbeds.

The Mars Express spacecraft will jettison a small lander, Beagle 2, to the red planet's surface with a variety of solar-powered scientific experiments and a rechargeable battery.

Beagle 2, named after Charles Darwin's ship in exploring uncharted areas of the Earth in 1831, will take photographs for the first time. It also will deploy a mechanical mole that will crawl short distances across the surface and burrow beneath large boulders to collect soil samples.

McCord said the orbiter's instruments will allow scientists to determine the three-dimensional structure of surface features as small as three feet. They'll also obtain images of the surface in five colors, he said.

Overall, he added, "This is the most capable imaging system to be flown to Mars."

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