Thursday, October 25, 2001

UH scientists jazzed
about Mars trip

They eagerly await land
details of the Red Planet and
any sign of water or ice

By Helen Altonn

University of Hawaii planetary scientists are relieved and elated that NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft is orbiting around the Red Planet.

University of Hawaii

"We are eagerly awaiting the first data coming back," said Peter Mouginis-Mark, Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology professor and researcher.

The spacecraft's successful orbit late yesterday after traveling 93 million miles through space was cheered after two previous NASA satellites to Mars failed.

"We're just really excited about getting access to some of the data sets," Mouginis-Mark said.

The two instruments aboard, a thermal infrared camera and a gamma ray spectrometer, will be tested in the next month but real data isn't expected until about New Year's, he said.

The camera is expected to provide detailed images of the planet's surface so scientists can look for different rock compositions, said Mouginis-Mark, who studies terrestrial and planetary volcanoes.

He is interested in the range of volcanic rocks on Mars and sedimentary deposits.

Compositional measurements are "really crucial for understanding details of the surface of Mars when we send landers there in two years," he said.

"And ultimately, if people go to Mars, this is important."

Experiments will be done to determine how many rocks are on the surface, which is critical for safe landings in the future, he said.

The gamma ray spectrometer is the first instrument flown to Mars that can reveal if there is ice or water close to the surface, he said.

"When we look at the landscape of Mars, we see a lot of signs of former water being close to the surface, sometime in the geologic past.

"Knowing if it's still there will be extremely important for future Mars mission planning because water is crucial, not only for drinking but production of breathable air and rocket fuel.

"Plus, if there are microorganisms on Mars, they would find liquid water to be a useful substance," he pointed out.

The Mars Global Surveyor, launched in 1997, still is working well in orbit around Mars and providing a lot of data, Mouginis-Mark said.

"We're working a lot with those data sets and trying to get involved with the two rovers, which will land in January of 2004.

"These are extremely exciting missions as well," he added, "all part of a continuing effort we have at UH to make Mars research an aspect of our work in addition to studying volcanoes on Earth and other things."

NASA/JPL Mars Odyssey site

UH Institute for Astronomy
Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology

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