UT Students Join Mars Team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory

PASADENA — Four students from the University of Tennessee-s department of earth and planetary science are at NASA-s Jet Propulsion Laboratory this week, working with members of the Mars Exploration Rover teams to analyze data sent back from the red planet.

University of Tennessee students, faculty and an alumnus are working on the Mars rover mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Left to right: UT grad student Karen Stockstill; UT alumnus Michael Wyatt, now a post-doctoral student at Arizona State University; UT senior Sandra Ciccolella, UT graduate student Keith Milam. Back row: UT professors Hap McSween and Jeff Moersch; UT graduate student Livio Tornabene.

Graduate students Keith Milam, Karen Stockstill and Livio Tornabene and senior Sandra Ciccolella are at JPL with UT-s Dr. Hap McSween, an internationally recognized planetary geologist and NASA adviser, and Dr. Jeff Moersch, assistant professor of geology.

UT is one of only four universities with students working on the rover missions.

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

The students arrived at JPL in time to witness the landing of Opportunity last Saturday.

“We were standing in a room with scientists ranging in age from very young to those who have been in the business for 40 years,” Milam said. “As those first images come down, it-s just amazing to see how excited and giddy people get.”

Milam and the other UT students will work primarily with members of the mineralogy team, examining thermal infrared images of both the Spirit and Opportunity landing sites and trying to determine the kinds of minerals found in the rocks there.

Despite the recent problems with Spirit, there is already a great deal of information to process, Milam said.

“We have about 16 days of data already from Spirit, and there may be up to 6000 data products in the onboard memory,” Milam said. “We-re hearing that Spirit may be able to do science in the next few days. Then we-ll have two rovers going at once.”

In addition to their mineralogy studies, the group will have some operational responsibilities.

“We-re being trained in ‘mission critical roles’ for mini-tests of one of the instruments onboard the rover,” Milam said. “We-re learning how to download data from the instrument, and how to uplink commands.”

McSween says the early impressions of the Opportunity site are distinctly different from anything scientists have seen before on Mars.

“We have this outcropping of rock right in front of us. Geologically, you learn a lot more from rocks that are in place, and there is something really interesting in the pictures: the rocks are beautifully layered. This means that they are sedimentary rocks that were carried and deposited by water, or they are sediments from an exploding volcano. One of these ideas has implications for water, the other doesn-t. We don-t know the answer yet, but we may know in a few days.”