Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

Professor, students lead Mars probe

COURTESY OF NASA

Though Washington University is known for its extensive medical research, one faculty member’s explorations have expanded to out-of-this-world proportions-literally. Earth and Planetary Sciences Department Chair and James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor Raymond Arvidson has been contributing to NASA’s current Mars operations for seven years now as the mission’s deputy principal scientist.

In Pasadena, California, Arvidson and many other researchers are in the process of examining Mars’ past terrain and investigating the issue of whether Mars was once habitable. The mission is working on this by searching for lake sediment and mineral deposits, both of which form only when water is present. The presence of water would, in turn, indicate the capability to support life forms.

The mission’s scientists conduct their work through two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Each rover traverses Mars’ surface, taking photographs of any evidence significant to the team’s goals. Arvidson’s team is currently working on detailing how water interacted with Martian rocks and soils, evaluating the environments various mineral deposits occur in, and ascertaining whether Mars was actually once wet and warm, despite its current dry climate.

Arvidson’s aims for the mission are not merely limited to finding answers. He hopes that the results discovered will “quickly and approachably be made known to the public, since the public is paying for the mission”-around $840 million, to be exact. Although that figure may seem steep, it finances the salaries of over a thousand scientists as well as the cost of the two rovers.

Many of those scientists come from the University; in fact, the University’s team is the mission’s second largest. (The Cornell University team, which provides the mission’s principal investigator, contains the most members.)

Senior Bethany Ehlmann and graduate student Frank Seelos are members of Arvidson’s team, as is Ed Guinness, a senior research scientist, and Curt Niebur, Ph.D., both from the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. The team also contains University alumni Randy Lindemann, who serves as the team’s lead mechanical engineer, and Craig Leff, the lead datalink coordinator. Other contributors to the team’s efforts are Bradley Jolliff, Alian Wang, Tom Stein, and Margo Mueller.

Arvidson and his team have helped to select safe and scientifically important landing sites for the rovers. Both sites needed to be flat, free of large protruding rocks that could damage the rovers, and full of possible evidence that water had once existed on or beneath their surfaces. The team’s work enabled Spirit’s landing at Gusev Crater and Opportunity’s at the Meridiani Planum.

The team has already discovered hematite, a type of iron oxide, in the rocks of the Meridani landing site. Since iron oxide develops in proximity to water, the find suggests that water may have once existed on Mars.

“Everything is going spectacularly well,” Arvidson said regarding the mission’s progress, adding that no significant setbacks are expected.

While Arvidson’s team encountered some minor problems with Spirit’s computer, the problems were summarily fixed and the computer is now working perfectly.

At the time of his interview, Arvidson said he planned to begin driving Spirit on Friday and had already landed Opportunity inside a 20-meter-wide crater. Having landed successfully, the rover will begin exploring the Martian plains.

In addition to working with Spirit and Opportunity, Arvidson also works with the European team’s spacecraft, Mars Express, which is currently orbiting Mars. Mars Express harbors Omega, an imaging system that maps the Mars’ surface. Arvidson has spent time in Paris coordinating Omega’s images with those of the Mars rovers.

This mission is far from Arvidson’s first-he has participated in Mars missions since around 1970. His interest in studying Mars comes from the planet’s possible former life-sustaining abilities.

“Mars is the best place [after Earth]…for life,” Arvidson said.

After this mission, Arvidson’s work with NASA will continue in 2005, when he begins work with the CRISM team of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance mission. CRISM’s job is to capture images of the Mars surface. In 2007, Arvidson will take charge of the digging equipment on the Phoenix lander, which will search for organic materials beneath ice in Mars’s high northern latitudes. He has also formulated a proposal to look for active volcanoes on Venus.

With all these projects, Arvidson said he and his associates are “booked up through the end of the decade, pretty much.”

Although far from the University’s campus, Arvidson has found ways to continue teaching his students. In the spring, his Pathfinder 202 class will travel to the Mojave Desert for five to six days to study the ecology and geology of the Mojave National Preserve, which lies between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Arvidson also manages to stay in touch with his current students by teaching over the telephone.

The Mars project will potentially conclude in six months. Arvidson’s team predicts that the solar-powered rovers will work for approximately 90 days.

“At some point, the sun will be so low in the sky [of Mars] that the rovers won’t work anymore,” Arvidson said. “But we’re planning on staying with it ’til the end.”

The end, he noted, will be in time for him to return to campus for graduation.

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