27. Mission: To Mars!

Steven W. Squyres, Astronomy, led the scientific team in the development of the scientific instrumentation, the Athena payload, that traveled aboard NASA’s twin Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched in the summer of 2003—Spirit on June 10 and Opportunity on July 7. The goal of the Athena instruments is to provide the most vivid images and to conduct the most comprehensive geologic examination to date of Mars’ surface. In addition to panoramic cameras (Pancams) for high-resolution, 20/20 images to capture the planet’s landscape, the Athena payload includes a microscopic imager, three spectrometers, and a rock abrasion tool (RAT) to scrape away the outer layers of Martian rock. The mission to Mars is to determine the history of the planet’s climate and to search for evidence of water and therefore evidence of life forms.

After successful landings on the planet in the winter of 2004—Spirit on January 3 at Gusev Crater and Opportunity on January 25 at Meridiani Planum—Squyres reported evidence of water on Mars. Proof of water came from Opportunity at a rocky outcropping, El Capitan, in the crater at Meridiani Planum. Scientists found a hydrated iron sulfate mineral called jarosite, a rare mineral on Earth, which forms in dilute sulfuric acid in ground water. Images from Mars, taken by two Cornell-developed panoramic cameras—research led by James F. Bell, Astronomy—are the most detailed pictures of another planet’s surface ever obtained. Other Cornell members of the Mars team are Harry E. Stewart, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and research associate Robert J. Sullivan, Jr., Radiophysics and Space Research. They developed methods to study the physical properties of Martian soil, using rover instruments.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA, and Cornell manages the science instruments carried by the two rovers.

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