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Busy Scientist
Busy Scientist
16 Dec 2003
(Source: University of Arizona)

From Lori Stiles, UA News Services, 520-621-1877
December 16, 2003

Contact Information Peter H. Smith 520-621-2725,
(NOTE: Smith will be traveling after Dec. 19)

VIDEO: For NASA/JPL animation of the rover mission, contact
Vern Lamplot 520-621-1877

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Mars Express -
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MER science payload -

The United Kingdom and the United States are about to land separate missions on Mars, and a University of Arizona scientist has a role in both.

Mars missions are fraught with risks and challenges. But with luck, both the European and NASA missions will return data, and Peter H. Smith will soon compare the results. Smith is a member of the science team for Britain's Beagle 2 lander, which is riding aboard Europe's Mars Express spacecraft. He's also on the team for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Smith, a senior research scientist at UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, headed the camera team on NASA's successful Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997. He also directs the Phoenix mission that is scheduled to land at the planet's icy north polar cap in 2008.

This coming Friday, Dec. 19, the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft will eject its Beagle 2 lander. The lander will parachute to the Martian surface on Christmas Eve (Pacific Time) surrounded by three giant balloons that are designed to cushion its fall.

After Beagle 2 bounces to a halt, it will push the airbags away and hit the dirt. Then it will open like a giant pocket watch and unfold the solar panels that power its robotic arm. The Payload Adjustable Workbench, or PAW, at the end of the robotic arm carries seven instruments that will search for traces of life.

One of these instruments is a German/UA microscope that will examine rocks after a grinder removes weathered debris from their surfaces. The microscope, which has a resolution of 6 microns, can resolve features down to a few thousandths of a millimeter.

"No one has ever looked at Martian rock and soil under a microscope," Smith said. Extreme close-ups will show if dust grains were shaped by wind or water, and if the rock is sedimentary or volcanic.

German scientists from the Max Planck Institut fur Aeronomie recruited Smith to supply lenses and illumination systems for the Beagle 2 microscope. In 1997, they worked with Smith on the Mars Pathfinder project, and used the imager he designed and built. Smith built the Beagle 2 imager's optics with funds supplied by the University of Arizona Foundation.

A successful Beagle 2 landing would be a great Christmas present delivered just before Smith begins an exciting New Year as a mission scientist on the NASA rover mission.

On Jan. 3 (Pacific Time) NASA will land a first golf-cart-sized rover on Mars. Then on Jan. 24 (Pacific Time), NASA will land a second, duplicate rover on the opposite side of the planet.

The rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, will hunt for clues about past environments that might have supported life. Each vehicle is equipped with a color stereo camera and a robotic arm that carries a microscope, a grinding tool with brushes to expose fresh rock surfaces, and devices that will tell what the rocks are made of.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caifornia Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the rover exploration mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington.

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Last Updated: 23 Dec 2003