with Simon Mansfield

Athena to roam Mars in 2001
Ithica N.Y. - Nov 15, 1997 - Following a real-life space odyssey to Mars in 2001, a late-model lander and rover, equipped with a Cornell University scientific instrument package called Athena, will roam and study a large corridor of the Martian highlands and ancient terrain, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced today (Nov. 7, 1997).

The mission, to be launched in April 2001, will seek out the geological record of ancient Martian waterways and possible biology, according to Steven Squyres, Cornell professor of astronomy and the principal science investigator for the Mars 2001 Lander mission.

The Cornell portion of the mission is being funded by NASA at a cost of $17 million.

James Bell, Cornell senior research associate of astronomy, will join Squyres as one of 20 science team members from the United States, Germany and Denmark for the Athena project.

Squyres begins work on the project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday. "We're starting fast. We're going to hit the ground running," he said.

The Athena rover payload on the Mars 2001 Lander/Rover has four scientific objectives:

  • to provide sharp, color stereo imaging of the planet's surface;
  • to determine the fine-scale textural properties of the Martian landscape;
  • to identify the elements and minerals of the dusty Martian countryside;
  • to collect and store surface samples in the hope that the samples will be retrieved later in the mission.

    Autumn has been nothing but gilt-edged for Cornell's role in space science history, as today's NASA announcement follows close on the heels of other important space projects.

    On Oct. 21, NASA announced that Cornell will lead and direct a $154 million mission to conduct close-proximity comet fly-bys, scheduled for launch in 2002. On Oct. 31, two Cornell astronomy professors announced the discovery of two new moons orbiting the planet Uranus.

    "We are delighted that NASA has once again affirmed Cornell's leadership in space studies by appointing Steve Squyres to lead Project Athena," Cornell President Hunter Rawlings said. "Athena is the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and guardian of the city of Athens, of whose enlightened citizens Pericles wrote, 'We throw open our city to the world.' Today, we can say that we open our city -- our campus -- to the stars."

    Athena is designed to be larger and to last longer than Sojourner, which sent back detailed images of the Martian surface this summer.

    Rover Athena is part of two Mars Surveyor 2001 missions. The first mission, to be launched in 2001, will be the Mars 2001 Orbiter, due for launch in March of that year. Athena is part of the second mission, called the Mars 2001 Lander/Rover, which is scheduled for launch in April of that year.

    Prior to the Mars Surveyor 2001 missions, NASA will launch two other robotic Mars missions, now scheduled to blast off in late 1998 and early 1999, the space agency said.

    Both of the Mars Surveyor 2001 missions are part of an ongoing series of Mars exploration spacecraft, which began with the 1996 launches of the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Pathfinder lander. All the missions are components of NASA's long-term exploration of the red planet, in which two missions are launched approximately every 26 months, according to the space agency.

    An integrated science team from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, Denver, will develop the missions.

    Cornell's Athena rover payload is an integrated suite of scientific instruments designed to conduct onsite analyses of the surface. Those instruments include an imager and infrared spectrometer, giving the instruments the ability to see through dust coatings that normally would obscure spectral analyses of the surface.

    Athena also will feature an Alpha-Proton-X-Ray spectrometer (APXS), a Mossbauer spectrometer and a Raman spectrometer, all of which gather mineralogical data. The microscopic imager will reveal surface composition information in detail.

    Rather than collect loose pebbles and Martian dust, a low-powered mini-corer will drill through the Martian rock to accumulate intact samples of rocks and boulders. The mini-corer can drill at an angle and has been demonstrated to cut through dense, basalt-type formations, according to Squyres.

    In addition to Athena, the Mars 2001 Lander will carry an imager to take pictures of the terrain during the lander's rocket-assisted descent to the surface. The images will render geologic information, important for the rover's initial operations and traverses by the Athena rover. NASA said that Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems Inc., San Diego, Calif., will be the team leader for the Descent Imager science team.


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