Rock Hunting on Mars Not Easy, UT Geologist Says (290)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Steering a vehicle across Mars is no easy task, especially when the driver is on Earth, a University of Tennessee geologist on NASA’s Mars Pathfinder team said Wednesday.

 Dr. Hap McSween has been training at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, Calif., for the mission set to land July 4.

 McSween said the probe’s instruments are “superbly capable” of locating and analyzing Martian rock chemistry.

 However, scientists’ ability to maneuver a NASA rover via remote-control 120 million miles away is not.

 “The weak link is probably our ability to place the instrument against a rock,” McSween said. “Driving the rover by remote control has proven to be a great challenge in training exercises because it’s not in real time.”

 McSween said that after spying a promising rock through a camera on the lander, scientists will send command messages which take 20-30 minutes to reach the rover. After the command is executed, another image must be relayed to see if it worked, he said.

 “It’s not like driving in real time,” he said. “The rover team is having a very difficult time being able to place this instrument on a rock.”

 McSween will analyze geological data collected from a dried river bed in Mars’ Southern Highlands. The only known sample from that region is the meteorite AL84001, which a NASA team said held evidence of life on Mars.

 McSween disputed that claim, but said other rocks from the area could hold more conclusive evidence about life on Mars.

 “This is a chance to look at more of those rocks, and I’m sure that (AL84001) is not representative of all the rocks in these highlands,” McSween said.

“If our instruments can be brought to bear, we will get an amazing amount of wonderful information about the nature of these rocks and soils.”

 Contact: Dr. Hap McSween (423-974-9805)