January 29, 2008
Principal investigator of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission to give talk at Stanford
The man who first conceived of the idea to build two rovers, strap them to the top of rockets and send them off to Mars in search of signs that the planet might once have been capable of supporting life is scheduled to give a presentation at Stanford on what it took to make his dream a reality, and what has happened since his two rovers landed nearly four years ago.
Steve Squyres, who has served as the Mars Exploration Rover mission's principal investigator since its inception, will deliver the 26th annual Bunyan Lecture on Feb. 6 at the invitation of the Astronomy Program.
Squyres, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, will discuss the rovers and their capabilities, some of the technical challenges that he and his team faced in getting them to Mars and operating them there, and the scientific discoveries that have been made over the past four years of the $900 million mission.
The Mars Exploration Rover project is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term robotic exploration of the red planet. This particular mission has been ongoing since 2003; after a seven-month journey through space, the so-called twin robot geologists, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on Mars in January 2004. The rovers operate near the equator, on opposite sides of the planet. Though they were each commissioned for only three months of exploration, the twin rovers have been successfully transmitting images and valuable data back to the control station, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., ever since.
Squyres wants his audience to understand just how exhilarating the process of space exploration is. "This mission is humanity's first overland expedition across the surface of another planet," Squyres said. "It is exploration in the truest sense. We come in, look around, see something interesting off in the distance and say, 'Let's go there.' And we do, and we find out what's there."
The primary goal of the Mars Rover Exploration mission is to gather evidence of past water activity on the red planet by characterizing its rocks and soils. This goal was largely achieved in March 2004 when images sent back by Opportunity of a rock outcrop near its landing site showed compelling evidence that the rocks were once drenched in liquid water. Additional evidence has surfaced at other sites since then. Liquid water is widely accepted as necessary for life, and such evidence strongly suggests that conditions suitable for life once existed on Mars. For the mission's discoveries, Squyres was awarded the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science.
Squyres' talk also will include stories of technical challenges he and his team of 170 scientists have had to overcome. Both vehicles have faced treacherous conditions, such as descents down rocky slopes into high-impact craters and severe dust storms that blanketed the rovers' solar panels used to recharge their batteries during the day.
At one point, one of the rovers was even stuck in a sand dune for six weeks (it was later nicknamed "Purgatory Dune"). "You're trying to do something that nobody's ever done before, so there's no place to go and look stuff up. So we went out and bought a bunch of sand, made a sand dune, drove our own rover into it and practiced getting it out," Squyres recalled. "And this is the stuff that makes it fun. The reason why I love getting up and doing my job is because there is always a new challenge, and it always makes you think."
Each year the Stanford Astronomy Program organizes the Bunyan Lecture, named for James T. Bunyan, a former member of the Hoover Institution whose will specified that his estate endow lectures that "inquire into man's changing vision of the cosmos and of human destiny as revealed in the latest discoveries in the fields of astronomy and space exploration."
"We try to find lecturers on topics that are new and exciting and that the public is interested in," said Vahé Petrosian, chair of the Astronomy Program and a professor of physics and of applied physics. "People are talking about eventually sending humans over to Mars, so these are important discoveries that this mission is making right now. They will be very useful for the planet's future exploration."
Past Bunyan lecturers include Mike Brown, an astronomy professor at the California Institute of Technology, whose recent work led to the debate and eventual demotion of Pluto from a real planet to a dwarf planet, and the late Carl Sagan, who played a leading role in the U.S. space program and made several major discoveries on his own.
"The Bunyan Lecture is a chance for me to get up in front of a group of people who, by paying taxes, made this mission possible," Squyres said. "I want to show them where their money is going."
So how does Squyres justify the billions of tax dollars spent on space exploration?
"If a society like ours is able to do a pretty goodthough not perfectjob of taking care of the basic needs of its citizens, then we have a certain obligation to commit a modest fraction of our resources to addressing basic human curiosity," he explained. "This mission has no immediate payoff; it doesn't put textbooks into schools. But it does put knowledge into textbooks."
Squyres is the author of the book Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet. He has been awarded the Harold C. Urey Prize (1987), the Carl Sagan Award of the American Astronomical Society (2004) and the Wired Rave Award (2005). In addition, Squyres has served as chair of the NASA Space Science Advisory Committee and as a member of the NASA Advisory Council.
Squyres' presentation is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 in Room 201 of the Hewlett Teaching Center at Stanford. The event is free and open to the public.
Ashley Kamiura is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.
Steve Squyres will give the 26th Bunyan Lecture at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6, in the Hewlett Teaching Center, Room 201. The title of his talk is "Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet." He also will give the Astrophysics ACKS Seminar at 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, in the Bill Gates Computer Science Building, Room B12.