Press Release

Scientists – and Kids Too – Eager for Deeper Look at Geology of Mars

By SpaceRef Editor
February 21, 2002
Filed under , ,

The remote sensing technologies on the Global Surveyor spacecraft have
yielded enough new information about the geology of Mars that planetary
scientists will still be studying it for decades to come, and yet the
planetary geologists could hardly be more excited about what promises to be
an incoming flood of new and different data from the instruments on Odyssey.
Arizona State University Korrick Professor of Geology Philip Christensen,
the principal investigator for Mars Global Surveyor’s Thermal Emission
Spectrometer (TES) and also for 2001 Mars Odyssey’s Thermal Emission
Imaging System (THEMIS) is still getting data from TES. However, thanks to a
significant expansion of his team’s facilities, he and his colleagues are
prepared and eager to begin receiving and analyzing an additional stream of
data from an even more powerful instrumental array.

On February 22, Christensen and fellow scientists will dedicate a newly
remodeled and greatly expanded set of high tech facilities in the Moeur
Building, an historic adobe structure on the ASU campus. NASA officials
will be present, as will a group of students from Nogales, Arizona, who will
be among the first of thousands of middle and high school students who will
participate in Mars imaging and remote sensing alongside the scientists in a
NASA/ASU education program called the Mars Student Imaging Project.
Measuring the infrared signatures of minerals on the martian surface, TES
produced the first global mineral map of Mars and provided the mineralogical
roadmap for geologists and geochemists following the trail to water’s past
on Mars.

Says Christensen, “From TES we learned what minerals were present, where
former hydrothermal systems might have been located, the mineral
compositions of the dust, ice and rocks on Mars, and we’ve got a lot of
interesting ideas of where might be the most interesting and unique places
on the Martian surface.”

With THEMIS, Christensen now hopes to start focusing on these unique
locations because what sets THEMIS apart from its predecessor is high
spatial resolution. Compared to TES, the images THEMIS sends back to earth
are thirty times clearer.

According to Christensen, “It’s like if you sent a survey out to map the
west and you discover the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevadas and the great
deserts – you do an inventory of what’s out there, and then you start
focusing on places like Yellowstone, places that are unique and different
from every place else.”

For this greater focus, THEMIS is equipped to study the Martian surface on
two fronts. THEMIS is a two-camera thermal emission imaging system. In
addition to collecting information about Martian surface minerals from the
infrared heat they emit, THEMIS also collects data from reflected sunlight.
THEMIS collects infrared information using 10 spectral bands, and visible
light using 5 bands.

Using its improved infrared capabilities, THEMIS will continue TES’s mission
to determine the mineralogy of the Martian surface, map the entire planet,
and identify where ancient, wet environments – and possibly life – may have
once existed on Mars. On this front, THEMIS will also search for temperature
anomalies associated with active subsurface hydrothermal systems (such as
heat coming from active volcanic areas).

Using its visible light capabilities, THEMIS will help fill in informational
gaps between large-scale geological images from the Viking orbiters in the
1970s and the very high-resolution images from MGS. Essentially, THEMIS will
provide a more comprehensive map of the particular features of Mars’ geology
and geography.

This information is key to NASA’s upcoming 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers
mission, which plans to send two rovers equipped with remote sensing
equipment to the surface of Mars. Christensen and his team at ASU are
preparing smaller versions of his instrument to be installed on the rovers.
In order to know where the rovers should land, researchers like Christensen
want to know not only where the most interesting mineral deposits are
located, but also in which of these sites the rovers will best be able to
maneuver.

The science team’s first THEMIS images are tentatively scheduled to be
released at a NASA press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on
March 1.

The first student imaging project, to be performed by a high school class
from Schaumberg, Illinois, will begin on March 17 and will be featured on a
broadcast of “Live from Mars” on March 19. The first scientific findings by
this student group will be released at a public press conference at ASU at
11 a.m. on March 20. At that time, a second student group, students from
Nogales, Arizona will be at the facility acquiring their image and will be
available for interview.

The ASU Mars Student Imaging Project is an outreach activity of Arizona
State University, developed initially in connection with research activities
involving the Thermal Emission Spectrometer experiment on the Mars Global
Surveyor. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the 2001 Mars Odyssey
mission for NASA’s Office of Space Science. See
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/odyssey/.

THEMIS was developed at Arizona State
University, Tempe, with Raytheon Santa Barbara Remote Sensing, Santa
Barbara, Calif. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, is the prime
contractor for the project, and developed and built the orbiter. Mission
operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and from JPL, a
division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. For more
information on THEMIS, see http://themis.asu.edu/index.html .

SpaceRef staff editor.