NASA’s Mars rovers could shut down for good at any moment, but their demise will barely slow down Arizona State University scientists who built major components for the two space vehicles.
ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility expects to keep busy for years dissecting the voluminous body of data the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have gathered since arriving on the Red Planet in January.
"The data is going to raise new questions and maybe spark raging debates for a long time," said Greg Mehall, chief engineer for projects led by ASU astrogeologist Phil Christensen.
Christensen’s team developed the rovers’ thermal emissions spectrometers. The devices are taking infrared images of Martian rocks to determine the mineralogical composition of the planet’s surface.
The rovers and ASU’s instruments are turning in a stellar performance.
The National Aeronautics and Space Adminis- tration hoped for the rovers to last about three months in Mars’ harsh environment. The probes remain active after almost seven months, though their power is waning as the frigid Martian winter sets in.
"Everything we intended to do (on this mission) is complete. Now it’s purely icing on the cake. Everything we are getting at this point is bonus science," Mehall said.
Most significant for the ASU team, discoveries verify theories based on earlier thermal imaging by ASU-designed spectrometers on the Odyssey and Global Surveyor satellites orbiting Mars.
The images pointed to the Meridiani Planum region as a potentially fruitful target for investigation by the Opportunity rover.
Christensen convinced NASA it was a promising place to look for hematite, a mineral that forms in watery environs. Its presence could indicate Mars once had lakes or seas suitable for harboring simple microbial life.
The prediction of a hematite site proved correct. Further study is needed to decide if there’s sufficient supporting evidence to consider the possibility of life.
"The data are complex. It will take time to analyze. But there could be big discoveries to come as pieces of the puzzle are put together," said researcher Tim Glotch.
ASU’s Mars facility figures to be a flash point for worldwide scientific theorizing over results of the rover missions, and to be among prime outlets for the latest news in Mars studies.
ASU also runs the public outreach effort for all of NASA’s Mars missions. "We can communicate (new findings) almost instantaneously to the education program," said researcher Mike Wyatt.
Thus some of the many Valley schoolchildren who tour the facility each year might by chance be among the first to hear of breakthroughs in space research.
The ASU team is hoping the success of spectrometers on Spirit and Opportunity earns it a shot of making breakthroughs in exploration technology.
Christensen’s group wants to build a micron thermal spectrometer. The plan envisions a rover equipped to grind up rocks and deposit grains under the lens of a spectrometer capable of providing a microscopic view of the planet’s geology, said researcher Steve Ruff.
The closer look would clear up many questions posed by findings of past and present missions, he said.
NASA could decide by this fall about whether to fund the project. ASU scientists want to get the apparatus on the next Mars land rover, scheduled for a 2009 launch.
Until then, the team will continue combing through the almost constant stream of images from spectrometers on the rovers and the orbiting satellites, which could continue transmitting for several years or more.