WU efforts take NASA to Mars

Puneet Kollipara

Many students begin their workdays at 9 a.m. every morning this summer, but for students like sophomore Kirsten Siebach, every day is unique.

Her unorthodox schedule comes because she is one of four Washington University earth and planetary sciences students who traveled to Arizona this summer to assist NASA with the Phoenix spacecraft’s mission to Mars. Because a Martian day is approximately 40 minutes longer than an earth day, many of the teams working on the mission must live in Mars time, meaning each day’s schedule starts later than the previous day’s.

“Sometimes we are working in the middle of the night and sleeping during the day. This makes for an interesting schedule, and it has been an adjustment,” Siebach said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re living on your own planet and it’s hard to keep in touch with family and friends, but the mission goes on, and in a week or two we’re on ‘Earth time’ again.”

Ever since NASA landed the Phoenix spacecraft on May 25, the four students as well as two University faculty, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Ray Arvidson and computer systems analyst Thomas Stein, have joined other academics from around the world at the University of Arizona to help Phoenix in its mission to learn more about the habitability of the planet’s polar region and to analyze the Martian soil.

Arvidson serves as chair of NASA’s Phoenix landing site working group. He also is co-investigator for the craft’s robotic arm, which will dig up soil and ice samples.

Stein works with the Phoenix geology theme group and also archives data for NASA’s Planetary Data System.

The four students who traveled to Arizona include Siebach, earth and planetary sciences doctoral candidate Selby Cull, first year graduate student Tabatha Heet and junior Rebecca Greenberger.

Heet has a long history of involvement in the Phoenix mission. In the fall of 2006, as a junior earth and planetary sciences major at Washington University, Heet used HiRISE, a feature of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in order to view rocks on the Martian surface as small as 1.5 yards across.

Using a software program called ENVI, Heet counted large rocks that could have posed a threat to landing the spacecraft to determine a relatively safe landing site. She also worked with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to create a an automatic, computerized counting method.

“The rock counting was tedious but overall I enjoyed it because I knew I was doing something important and useful to the mission,” Heet said.

Thanks in part to Heet’s work, the spacecraft endured a shaky but safe landing on May 25, and it also opened its solar panels.

“We knew going in that the biggest threat rocks posed to Phoenix was inhibiting the opening of the solar arrays,” Heet said. “The best moment for me so far was seeing an image a couple hours after Pheonix landed of the solar arrays deployed.”

Heet will be a graduate student at the University in the fall, and she hopes to base some of her graduate research on Phoenix mission data.

The four students currently serve as documentarians for the Phoenix mission. According to Siebach and Greenberger, common duties include taking notes during meetings and compiling reports on the meetings afterward, as well as helping to name geological features using a set of fairy tale themed names.

As a documentarian, Siebach keeps spreadsheets that explain past and future “sol-to-sol plans,” where a sol is a Martian day. She also tracks the completion of mission success objectives, names of features and targets and changes to the Martian surface.

Greenberger says she keeps track of what the Phoenix spacecraft must delete every day. Because the spacecraft has a limited amount of flash memory, it can only store a portion of the data it collects before shutting down for the day.

“A priority list determines what makes it into flash, and when I am the documentarian, I figure out what will be auto-deleted,” Greenberger said.

To prepare for the mission, students participated in training sessions and derived useful knowledge from University classes.

“Planetary science is a very multidisciplinary science, so I have used several of my classes while working here, including, of course, basic science and math classes like chemistry, physics, and calculus, earth and planetary science classes like Earth and the Environment, land dynamics, biogeochemistry and English classes that have taught me presentation skills,” Siebach said.

Greenberger also credited Arvidson with making sense of the mission.

“Ray’s remote sensing class has been particularly useful because everything we do on Mars involves remote sensing,” Greenberger said. “However, the classes I have taken that focus more on earth sciences are also useful because some of the same processes that have occurred on earth have also occurred on Mars.”

For the students, the experience has been unforgettable.

“The opportunity to work on the Phoenix mission has been incredible. I never thought that I would be able to work on a mission like this, and certainly not when I was 20,” Greenberger said. “It is also a great to be able to work with so many scientists and engineers every day and learn from them.”

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