Press Release

Student Programs Tap into Mars Rover Adventures

By SpaceRef Editor
February 12, 2004
Filed under , , ,

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers are not only providing scientists a
flood of information about Mars — including new insights today about
winds — they are also adding excitement to classrooms throughout the
nation.

An assortment of programs giving students first-hand opportunities to
work with information from NASA Mars missions help young people “see
themselves as scientists in the future because they understand the
process of science,” said Sheri Klug of Arizona State University,
Tempe, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. She
coordinates NASA Mars education programs for kindergarten through high
school, part of the agency’s goal to inspire the next generation of
explorers.

Silver Stage High School in Silver Springs, Nev., is one of 13 schools
participating in one program that pairs selected students with
researchers on the rover missions. “I actually get the opportunity to
work with the scientists. It’s really awesome!” said Shannon Theissen,
16, a Silver Stage junior.

Dr. Wendy Calvin, rover science team member from University of Nevada,
Reno, and Shannon’s mentor for a week at JPL, said, “This is the real
stuff, not baby steps. The students are using the same tools we do.”

Hundreds of other students from around the country participate in
programs using pictures and other information from NASA Mars orbiters,
and more than 1,000 have sent in rocks for a project to compare Earth
rocks with Mars rocks.

Meanwhile, noted Art Thompson of JPL’s rover flight team, “We have two
very busy rovers on the surface of Mars.” On Wednesday, Spirit broke
its own record set earlier in the week for the longest one-day drive
on Mars. The rover added 24.4 meters (80 feet) to its odometer,
bringing the total to 57.4 meters (188 feet) and ending its day near a
cluster of rocks dubbed “Stone Council.”

In coming weeks, scientists and engineers plan for Spirit to drive up
to the rim of a crater dubbed “Bonneville,” still more than two
football-field lengths away, in hopes of peering inside and seeing
rock layers that could tell the geologic history and the potential
role of water at the Gusev site.

Opportunity drove Friday morning to the fourth counterclockwise
position in its survey of a rock outcrop along the inner slope of the
crater in which it landed. Based on the survey, scientists will choose
a small number of locations on the outcrop to come back to for more
thorough examination later. The flight team has learned to compensate
for wheel slippage in the soil on the slope. “When we attempt to drive
up the slope we intentionally overdrive, and when we drive down a
slope we intentionally underdrive,” Thompson said.

Both rovers have used an infrared sensing instrument called the
miniature thermal emission spectrometer to study the sky, as well as
the ground. These atmospheric observations are revealing rapid
temperature changes in the lower atmosphere. In mid-morning, the air
temperature at about the height of an eight-story building swings up
and down by several degrees within a minute.

“Warmer and colder blobs of air are intermittently passing over the
rover,” said Dr. Don Banfield, a rover science team collaborator from
Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. “We’re watching the overturning of
the atmosphere as it’s warming up in the morning.” Rising warmer air
carries heat to upper layers of the atmosphere. Observing the details
of these changes helps scientists improve their models for
understanding Mars’ winds.

Better understanding of Mars’ winds is important not only for the
design of future landings on the planet, but also for interpreting
some features on the surface. “We’ve been talking a lot about water on
Mars in the past, but wind is currently the important agent of change
on Mars,” Banfield said.

Microscopic images indicate that windblown sand is eroding the outcrop
that Opportunity is studying. Dr. Mark Lemmon, science team member
from Texas A&M University, College Station, said that taking a series
of images with that instrument at slightly different distances from
the target allows creation of a three-dimensional view. “We’re
gathering as much information about the things we’re looking at as we
possibly can,” he said.

The main task for both rovers in coming weeks and months is to explore
for evidence in rocks and soils about whether the landing-site areas
ever had environments that were watery and possibly suitable for
sustaining life.

SpaceRef staff editor.