Sunday, January 25, 2004

This image mosaic taken by the panoramic camera on board the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the rover's landing site, the Columbia Memorial Station, at Gusev Crater.

From Manoa to Mars

UH researchers are anxious to see
what NASA explorers will reveal

University of Hawaii Mars researchers are anxious to see what NASA's rover explorers Spirit and Opportunity reveal about the Red Planet.

Spirit's landing Jan. 4 in Gusev crater was "an incredible accomplishment ... great for the space agency and for humanity in general," said Pete Mouginis-Mark, Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology interim director.

It's also a "great benefit" for HIGP faculty members, students and visiting researchers studying meteorites, volcanoes, lava flows and the chemistry and composition of Mars, he said.

At least six faculty members at HIGP, in the School of Ocean, Earth Science and Technology, have international reputations in Mars research, said planetary geologist Mouginis-Mark.

Scientists are concerned about Spirit's communications problems the past few days, but the rover "is doing exactly what it's supposed to do," said planetary geologist Vicky Hamilton. "It's waking up, sensing there is a problem and taking precautions so nothing else goes wrong."

Vicky Hamilton, left, F. Scott Anderson and Sarah Fagents look at the landing site on a color map showing Mars' topography as measured by the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter.

She said solving the problem is "like a detective mystery" with rover operators following clues and putting them "in the right order to tell the story, what's going on and figure out a plan to correct it."

Mouginis-Mark, who was on the NASA panel that gave final approval to the Mars landing sites, said the amount of data from Spirit isn't as great as scientists want but it's good news that it is communicating.

F. Scott Anderson, who joined the UH planetary geology group about 1 1/2 years ago, previously was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he helped to choose the two rover landing sites out of about 120 evaluated.

"Just a year ago in some ways this was just a theoretical exercise, crunching numbers, assessing what the surface might be like and trying to imagine it," he said.

"We're all very excited about the data coming out because of the potential implications for our own work. All of us have projects related to what they might discover."

A lot of original Mars research is being done at the Manoa institute, and it has trained some people flying the missions, Mouginis-Mark said.

"The quality of students we produce is such that we can now count on having one of our graduate students on almost every mission," Mouginis-Mark said.

For example, Cornell astronomer Jim Bell, who leads the rover's camera team, earned a doctorate degree in planetary geosciences at UH. He's been called "the Ansel Adams of the space age, the guy with the cool cameras."

Among other HIGP scientists working on Mars projects are Sarah Fagents, Steve Baloga, Joe Boyce, Sasha Krot, Paul Lucey, Mouginis-Mark, Ed Scott, Jeff Taylor and UH-Manoa Chancellor Peter Englert.

Hamilton said she's interested in "understanding what Mars is made of, the rocks, dust and dirt, and what that tells us of the history of the planet as a geologic body so we can compare it to Earth."

She uses infrared data from a thermal emission spectrometer on the Mars Global Surveyor and a similar instrument on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Hamilton previously was at Arizona State University where she worked on orbital instruments with Philip Christenson. He also designed a miniature infrared instrument for the rovers.

A remote-sensing specialist, Hamilton has been involved in studies of meteorites from Mars. But not knowing where they're from on the planet limits what researchers can learn about the environment, she said.

Hamilton said she's particularly intrigued by the site where the Opportunity rover was landing because the orbital data identified hematite there. The mineral usually is an iron oxide, giving Mars its red color, but the rover site has gray hematite, which can form with the presence of water, she said.

Much research is aimed at understanding the distribution and history of water on Mars because of implication that life might have existed on the planet.

Anderson helped to run the Gamma Ray Spectrometer on the Mars Odyssey that detected water ice similar to permafrost. (Jeff Taylor, professor and director of the Hawaii Space Grant Program, and Chancellor Englert are members of the Odyssey Gamma Ray Spectrometer team.)

Anderson is building instruments for future missions to measure chemistry, such as how salty the surface is, to determine if Mars once had an ocean, and to see if there are leftovers of cellular walls. "If we can find components of cell walls living or dead, it might tell us if life was there in the past."

He's working on a mass spectrometer that can be dropped from space onto Mars to measure chemical compounds on the surface and learn something about how it formed. 

He's conducting the project under a $5 million, five-year grant as part of a NASA Astrobiology Institute to study the relationship between water and life throughout the planet, the solar system and the universe.

Anderson also is working on an infrared imaging system to study changes in mineralogy and try to determine if water played an important role in forming the giant Valles Marineris trough system.

The rover sites are potentially downstream of any water that might have been disgorged from Valles Marineris, he noted.

Fagents, who was at Arizona State University with Hamilton before coming here, is looking at specific types of small volcanic cones appearing in data from the orbiting spacecraft.

With the ability now to see much smaller features on the surface, she said, "We're trying to see the field of small volcanic cones that look similar to the small cinder cones on the Big Island, say Mauna Kea."

The small cones on Mars aren't typical volcanic cones formed on the top of a vent but appear to have formed on top of lava flows in volcanic plains, she said.

She speculates that lava may have flowed over terrain with ice in the soil, heated the ice and produced pressurized vapor that exploded and threw out chunks of material to form cones. Similar cones are seen in Iceland formed by interaction of lava with water, she said.

Fagents is mapping the volcanic cone fields on Mars to try to figure out when they formed and when the lava flows formed: "Basically this is another way of getting at where water has been and how it has evolved over time."

She said climactic conditions on Mars aren't favorable for water but that thinking has been revolutionized by findings of ice, Mars Odyssey measurements of hydrogen atoms on the surface, and big channels that must have been formed by water.

It was assumed that Mars had basaltic magma similar to the Big Island, with low silica content, she said. However, orbital data suggests presence of andesite, a silica-rich rock which causes more explosive eruptions, she said.

If the rover finds andesite rocks on Mars, she said, "it will change the way we think about Martian volcanism."

Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Wayne Lee, right, held a broom as former Vice President Al Gore, far left, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, middle, looked on yesterday inside the Mission Control Center at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., following the safe landing of the Opportunity rover on Mars. The unmanned, six-wheeled rover landed at 7:05 p.m. Hawaii time in Meridiani Planum, NASA said.

NASA’s second Mars probe
arrives on the planet
without any problems

PASADENA, Calif. >> NASA's Opportunity rover landed on Mars late yesterday, arriving at the Red Planet exactly three weeks after its identical twin set down, and prompting whoops and cheers of delight from mission scientists.

"We're on Mars everybody," Rob Manning, manager of the entry, descent and landing portion of the mission, shouted as fellow scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory burst into wild applause.

The unmanned, six-wheeled rover landed at 7:05 p.m. Hawaii time in Meridiani Planum, NASA said. The smooth, flat plain lies 6,600 miles and halfway around the planet from where its twin, Spirit, set down on Jan. 3.

Minutes after the landing, former Vice President Al Gore and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger strode through mission control, shaking hands with elated scientists.

Together, the twin rovers make up a single $820 million mission to determine if Mars ever was a wetter world capable of sustaining life. NASA launched Spirit on June 10. Opportunity followed on July 7.

Last week, Spirit developed serious problems, cutting off what had been a steady flow of pictures and other scientific data. Scientists said earlier yesterday, however, that they believe they can fix the problem in the weeks ahead.

At a jubilant news conference nearly two hours after the landing, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe broke open a bottle of champagne, as he did after Spirit's landing, and toasted the mission's leaders.

"As the old saying goes, it's far better to be lucky than good, but you know, the harder we work the luckier we seem to get," O'Keefe said, adding "no one dared hope" that both rover landings would be so successful.

He said NASA officials hope to begin receiving photos from Opportunity within a few hours, and added that Spirit was on its way to being fully repaired.

Opportunity, meanwhile, made what for it was a relatively soft landing, scientists said.

Swaddled in protective air bags, it struck Mars at a force estimated to be two to three times Earth's gravity. Engineers had designed it to withstand as much as 40 G's, said Chris Jones, director of flight projects at JPL.

"It probably barely noticed it hit anything," Jones said.

Manning said the signals it was sending indicated it was in good shape.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had warned that it could take as long as 22 hours after Opportunity's landing for it to make contact with Earth, but it did so almost immediately.

Shortly before entering the martian atmosphere, Opportunity jettisoned its cruise stage, shedding the disc-shaped structure that had provided power, propulsion and communications capabilities during its seven-month trip through space.

As they prepared for the landing, scientists also said they were closing in on the root of the problem that led the Spirit rover to begin spewing gibberish and beeps instead of science and engineering data earlier this week.

They brought stability to the six-wheeled vehicle by disabling its flash memory, which is similar to the memory digital cameras use to store pictures, said Orlando Figueroa, director of NASA's Mars exploration program.

"We made good progress overnight," project manager Pete Theisinger said during a news conference at JPL. "The rover has been upgraded from critical to serious."

Spirit had resumed transmitting data Friday, but only in limited batches. The malfunction, which appeared Wednesday, may prevent the rover from taking another drive on Mars for as long as three weeks, Theisinger said.

Despite its woes, scientists said there is still a chance Spirit can take up where it left off when it began malfunctioning. JPL Director Charles Elachi said other NASA spacecraft, including Voyager, Magellan and Galileo, have recovered from even graver problems.

"I am completely confident, without any hesitation, that I think we will get that rover back to full operation," Elachi said.

The rover developed problems after working nearly flawlessly for days.

Mission members were able to stop the rover from rebooting its computer as it had done roughly 130 times and place it in so-called "cripple" mode to bypass its troubled flash memory.

They also succeeded in coaxing the robot to sleep after it stayed up two nights in a row when it should have been turned off to conserve power.

The root cause of Spirit's problems remained elusive, however, and NASA's inability to reproduce the problem in laboratory tests of its software on Earth suggests that something is awry with the rover's hardware, Theisinger said.


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