When NASA’s Mars Spirit rover touched down safely last
week on the red soil of Mars, University Prof. Nilton Renno could
take a little bit of the credit.

Mira Levitan
Martian dust storms, like those photographed in the above time-lapse series by the Mars Global Surveyor in 1999, can affect the landing of rovers like the Mars Spirit. University Prof. Nilton Renno has served as a dust-devil expert for the Spirit mission.

Renno, a professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences,
studies dust storms, a common and often violent weather phenomenon
on Mars. As a member of NASA’s Entry, Descent and Landing
Science Advisory Board for the Mars Exploration Rover, Renno used
his expertise to help design an effective landing strategy for the
Spirit.

“As the dust content of the atmosphere changes, the
density of the atmosphere changes, and that affects a lot the
landing of the spacecraft,” Renno said.

Because of the colossal challenges rovers face in a trip to the
Martian surface, Renno said, NASA must accept a failure rate of 15
to 20 percent.

“They refer to EDL as the ‘six minutes of
terror,’ ” Renno said. “The spacecraft goes from
12,000 kilometers to 12 kilometers per hour. … We have to
lose three zeroes in six minutes.”

The rover then leaves the main spacecraft, approaching the
surface on a parachute that releases the rover about 50 feet above
the ground. Once free, the rover faces further perils as it bounces
as high as a five-story building before gradually settling on the
Martian surface.

“They just let it go,” Renno said.
“Boing,” he added, laughing.

Since its arrival, the Mars Spirit rover has taken panoramic
color photos of the Martian surface and begun to conduct visual
analysis of surrounding rocks. The rover will not begin moving
around the landing site before Thursday at the earliest, NASA
scientists announced yesterday.

Renno isn’t the only University faculty member watching
events on Mars. Sushil Atreya, director of the University Planetary
Science Laboratory, is a scientific adviser for the European
satellite Mars Express. The Express, associated with the European
Space Agency’s missing Mars rover Beagle 2, arrived in orbit
around Mars on Dec. 25.

Atreya works with data from an infrared instrument on the
satellite that can analyze the lower 60 km of the Martian
atmosphere.

“With our instrument … we’re looking at the
composition of the atmosphere, in terms of the gases, the aerosols,
etc.,” said Atreya. He and research fellow Ah-San Wong are
searching for clues to help confirm theories that Mars once
possessed a warm, wet climate habitable to life.

Wong works with Atreya to model how molecules are distributed in
the Martian atmosphere. Some of the molecules the Express will try
to measure on Mars, such as sulfides and methane, may be indicators
of life, she said.

Although Wong has studied planets such as Jupiter and its moon
Titan, she prefers to study Mars, she said. “In Mars
there’s more opportunities – and I can tell my mom
about it and she’ll say, ‘So, have you found life
yet?’”

Atreya said his team does not consider itself in competition
with the Mars Spirit. “It’s all great fun,” he
said. “I know Steve Squyres (the principal scientist for the
Mars Spirit mission) and actually he’s on our team
too.”

To spur the enthusiasm of University undergraduates about Mars,
Renno and Engineering Prof. Robert Dennis have also designed an
interdisciplinary course, Engineering 450, which begins this
semester. The course examines how robotic exploration could lead to
human exploration of Mars and is sponsored by $100,000 of funding
from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“We are bringing people from JPL to do the first month of
lectures, to inspire the students and get them excited about Mars
and space exploration,” Renno said. The lectures are open to
the entire University community.

For instance, Jeff Simmonds, a team scientist for NASA’s
2009 rover, named Mars Space Laboratory, spoke to students Thursday
about high tech cameras he expects will travel to Mars in the
future.

“We’re using (Spirit) as a giant stepping stone, in
terms of technology (and) capability,” Simmonds said.

Simmonds’ lecture sparked the interest of students like
Engineering senior Ilya Wagner. “I was checking out the NASA
website … and a lot of the stuff he said makes sense now
when I look at the pictures,” Wagner said.

Wagner is also involved with the University Mars Rover Team, a
student group whose mission is to design manned vehicles that could
explore Mars. “I feel like student input right now really
matters, because we’re going to be engineers … maybe
when the human mission goes up,” he said.

Atreya said that he thinks the public is very excited about
missions to explore Mars. “Are we alone? Is there other life
besides us? These are questions that concern everyone,” he
said. “Not that we’re going to be able to answer those
questions any time soon, but this is a step in the right
direction.”

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