SETI bioastro: Fw: Cornell News: Digging holes on Mars

Date: Fri Dec 19 2003 - 13:40:50 PST

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    ----- Original Message -----
    Sent: Friday, December 19, 2003 3:44 PM
    Subject: Cornell News: Digging holes on Mars

    Spinning spokes: Cornell scientists develop method for using rover
    wheels to study Martian soil by digging holes

    FOR RELEASE: Dec. 19, 2003

    Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
    Office: 607-255-3290

    PASADENA, Calif. -- After the twin Mars Exploration Rovers bounce
    onto the red planet and begin touring the Martian terrain in January,
    onboard spectrometers and cameras will gather data and images --- and
    the rovers' wheels will dig holes.

    Working together, a Cornell University planetary geologist and a
    civil engineer have found a way to use the wheels to study the
    Martian soil by digging the dirt with a spinning wheel. "It's nice to
    roll over geology, but every once in a while you have to pull out a
    shovel, dig a hole and find out what is really underneath your feet,"
    says Robert Sullivan, senior research associate in space sciences and
    a planetary geology member of the Mars mission's science team. He
    devised the plan with Harry Stewart, Cornell associate professor of
    civil engineering, and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
    (JPL) in Pasadena.

    The researchers perfected a digging method to lock all but one of a
    rover's wheels on the Martian surface. The remaining wheel will spin,
    digging the surface soil down about 5 inches, creating a
    crater-shaped hole that will enable the remote study of the soil's
    stratigraphy and an analysis of whether water once existed. For
    controllers at JPL, the process will involve complicated maneuvers --
    a "rover ballet," according to Sullivan -- before and after each hole
    is dug to coordinate and optimize science investigations of each hole
    and its tailings pile.

    JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages
    the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA's Office of Space
    Science, Washington, D.C. Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., is managing the
    science suite of instruments carried by the two rovers.

    Each rover has a set of six wheels carved from aluminum blocks, and
    inside each wheel hub is a motor. To spin a wheel independently, JPL
    operators will simply switch off the other five wheel motors.
    Sullivan, Stewart and Cornell undergraduates Lindsey Brock and Craig
    Weinstein used Cornell's Takeo Mogami Geotechnical Laboratory to
    examine various soil strengths and characteristics. They also used
    Cornell's George Winter Civil Infrastructure Laboratory to test the
    interaction of a rover wheel with the soil. Each rover wheel has
    spokes arranged in a spiral pattern, with strong foam rubber between
    the spokes; these features will help the rover wheels function as
    shock absorbers while rolling over rough terrain on Mars.

    In November, Sullivan used JPL's Martian terrain proving ground to
    collect data on how a rover wheel interacts with different soil types
    and loose sand. He used yellow, pink and green sand -- dyed with food
    coloring and baked by Brock. Sullivan used a stack of large picture
    frames to layer the different colored sands to observe how a wheel
    churned out sloping tailings piles and where the yellow, pink and
    green sand finally landed. "Locations where the deepest colors were
    concentrated on the surface suggest where analysis might be
    concentrated when the maneuver is repeated for real on Mars," he says.

    Stewart notes similarities between these tests and those for the
    lunar-landing missions in the late-1960s, when engineers needed to
    know the physical characteristics of the moon's surface. Back then,
    geologists relied on visual observations from scouting missions to
    determine if the lunar lander would sink or kick up dust, or whether
    the lunar surface was dense or powdery.

      "Like the early lunar missions, we'll be doing the same thing, only
    this time examining the characteristics of the Martian soil," Stewart
    says. "We'll be exposing fresh material to learn the mineralogy and


    The web version of this release may be found at

    Cornell University News Service
    Surge 3
    Cornell University
    Ithaca, NY 14853

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