Arizona State University scientists are helping prepare the Mars land rover Spirit for its first steps across the planet’s landscape and anticipating big strides for the school’s space exploration.
"Right now they’re busy waking up all the different parts of the rover so it will be ready to sprint out of the gate in the next few days," ASU planetary geochemist Laurie Leshin said Monday.
More than a dozen re- searchers from ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility are at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. They’re analyzing the first radio signals and photo images from the rover, coming from more than 100 million miles away.
Although still buzzing with excitement over Spirit’s successful landing Saturday, scientists are working 10-hour shifts to meticulously map a route for the rover in an area that might be an ancient lake bed, said ASU geologist Philip Christensen.
One of the key tools on Spirit — and the Opportunity rover set to land Jan. 24 — is a thermal emissions spectrometer built under Christensen’s direction at ASU’s facility.
It enables the rovers to determine the composition of the Red Planet’s rocks and soil by detecting the infrared light emitted from geologic material.
Once both rovers are on the move and gathering data, "it’s going to be crazy. We’ll start getting a deluge of information," Christensen said.
The mineralogical data promises to unlock clues about the possibility that water once flowed on Mars, and whether the planet may harbor some form of life or did in the past.
"This is a great event for ASU, getting to have such a big involvement in this mission and having things going so well," said Leshin, a member of the Jet Propulsion Lab’s advisory board.
Leshin was on the team for the Mars Polar Lander, which crashed in 1999. It was among 20 spacecraft from various nations that failed to reach Mars or crashed in the effort over the past few decades.
The history of mishaps is making Spirit’s mission and ASU’s part in it all the more impressive, Leshin said.
ASU’s imaging and detection devices also are part of the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey orbiters. The components are to play a critical role in the rovers’ 90-day missions, providing pictures of the crafts from above to track their movements.
The spectrometer on the Odyssey was used to examine a recent massive dust storm on the planet. The data guided NASA in calculating a less risky path for Spirit through the residue of the storm as it entered the Martian atmosphere.
The instruments "are working beautifully," Christensen said.
Successful rover missions stand to earn ASU scientists major roles in future NASA projects, Leshin said.
The achievements will boost more than ASU’s science endeavors, said Jon Fink, vice president of research and economic development.
The Mars projects are "models for how the rest of the university can grow and mature and improve its research capacity," Fink said. "The accomplishment goes beyond just individual researchers and their students."