UT Graduate Students Work on Mars Mission

KNOXVILLE–Three graduate students from the University of Tennessee department of earth and planetary sciences are playing a key role in one of the Mars Exploration Rover missions.

Keith Milam, Karen Stockstill, and Livio Tornabene, under the direction of professors Hap McSween


Dr. Hap McSween

and Jeff Moersch, provided important information to NASA about Gusev Crater on Mars. The first Mars Exploration Rover will land in the crater in January and transmit data back to NASA over a three-month period.

The decision to land the rover at Gusev was based in part on newly acquired images used in the students- research, McSween said, adding that NASA wanted to utilize the most up-to-date information in selecting landing sites.

“The Gusev Crater site was controversial with NASA engineers because of landing safety issues. This work that the students have done in strengthening the scientific argument for Gusev has gone a long way towards demonstrating that this choice of site is a compelling one.”

Milam and his team used data collected by Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, both of which are still in orbit. Newly acquired infrared images from THEMIS, the Thermal Emission Imaging System aboard Odyssey, helped them identify some of the rocks and soil in and near the crater.

“One of the exciting things about the rover missions is that we have more information about Mars than we-ve ever had before,” Milam said. “We have data going back to the 1970s from the Viking program. Mars Global Surveyor and Odyssey are still orbiting and that-s the data we have access to.

“Using data from the THEMIS, we looked at where the rover would land, and what kind of rocks and sediment were there. We produced what is essentially a map of geologic information about Gusev, without having been there.

“We found that it is such a diverse site, a great place to see what happened over Martian history. Any time you have a hole in the ground, it-s like a record book.

“The focus of Mars research is on the search for water and possible life. Previous research had suggested that Gusev Crater might have been a lake at one time. The research we did supported that hypothesis, although it did not prove it.”

The team-s Gusev research is expected to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research early in 2004.

Milam, Stockstill, and Tornabene will join McSween and Moersch at NASA-s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California early in 2004, when the first data from the Rover at Gusev is transmitted.

“This is a once in a career opportunity,” Milam said. “How often do you write a paper about another planet and then have a robotic scientist go there and find out if what you said is valid?”

McSween and Moersch are co-investigators on the Mars Rover Exploration missions and the THEMIS project. McSween served on the science team for the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997.