NASA Selects UA's Peter Smith for Mars Rover Mission

Jeff Harrison
June 1, 2002

On Mars, dust rules. Red dust is omnipresent on the Red Planet. There are dunes everywhere. Dust floats in the thin Martian air, and whirls about the planet in dust storms and dust devils, and falls out of the air and onto Mars' rocky features.

On Mars, says Peter H. Smith, dust is the defining feature of the atmosphere, much like water and the hydrological cycle is the major force in Earth's atmosphere. Like water on Earth, dust is the major force eroding the surface of Mars.

Smith, a scientist at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, whose IMP camera was perhaps the most publicly notable success in the Mars Pathfinder mission several years ago, is one of more than two dozen scientists who will participate on the next NASA mission to Mars.

The Mars Exploration Rover (or MER), which is actually two vehicles that are designed to study the Martian environment, is scheduled for launch about a year from now in 2003. The two rovers are targeted to land on two separate parts of Mars in early 2004.

Smith is one of several scientists who will be looking at the dust cycle on Mars.

"Not much is known about the dust on Mars," Smith said. "We'll be looking at how dust piles up on surfaces, how it accumulates and how it gets off of surfaces."

Smith says this wasn't the initial goal of the MER mission, but NASA has recognized its importance, judged, he said, by the number of atmospheric scientists included in the mission. That includes Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist from Texas A&M University, one of Smith's longtime collaborators.

Lemmon says understanding Martian dust will help scientists resolve a number of issues, including the correct the color of images sent back to Earth. A panoramic camera will look at the landscape and sky, and possibly get a glimpse of Martian dust storms and dust devils.

Smith said he was probably included on the mission in part because of his expertise with calibrating remote controlled cameras, like the IMP on Pathfinder. And unlike Pathfinder, the MER vehicles will be significantly larger and be able to rage many miles instead of just a few hundred yards.

Smith and Lemmon and the 26 others were selected from 84 submitted projects. They will work with the MER Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., and will become full MER science-team members, joining previously selected scientists as part of the Athena science team, according to NASA.

"The breadth, scope, and creativity of the scientists selected is very encouraging," said Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science, Headquarters, Washington. "By directly participating in NASA's next mission to the surface of Mars, they will help bring us closer to the long-term objective of our Mars Exploration Program – understanding Mars as a planet and determining whether life ever existed there."

NASA officials say the MER mission science objectives include: (1) study rocks and soils for clues to past water activity; (2) investigate landing sites that have a high probability of containing evidence of the action of liquid water; (3) determine the distribution and composition of minerals, rocks and soils surrounding the landing sites; (4) determine the nature of local surface geologic processes; (5) calibrate and validate data from orbiting missions at each landing site; and (6) study the geologic processes for clues about the environmental conditions that existed when liquid water was present, and whether those environments were conducive for life.

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