Lunar and Planetary Lab Prepares for Mars Mission

Volcanic Rocks Simulate Martian Terrain

Some Type of Life Leaves Prints On the Martian Surface

Viking Photo Shows Real Mars Dirt

The "Imager for Mars Pathfinder" (IMP) recently landed on the UA campus. Actually, scientists and students at the Lunar and Planetary Lab (LPL) converted an unused area on the east side of the Space Sciences building into a simulation of Martian terrain. On November 17th the "Mars Garden" became a giant sand box for more than 40 international scientist involved in Peter Smith's IMP experiment, set to land on Mars on July 4, 1997.

Smith conceived of the idea of building a "Mars garden" as a place for the IMP science team to actively test their project and to gain experience with the instrumentation collecting actual real-time data on earth. LPL staff and graduate students scrounged up red volcanic rock around south-eastern Arizona and arranged them with scientific accuracy after 65 tons of redsoil was imported from Hawaii.

The defining principle for the garden, Smith said, is that it replicates the terrain of IMP's near-future Mars landing site. The "garden" was arranged using a variety of Mars analogue material to simulate the spectral units the IMP team would expect to see on Mars. The team assembled an anatomically correct version of martian terrain using an assortment of mafic and ultramafic rock samples from all over the world. In total there are over 400 specimens in the garden of notable size.

On November 17th, scientists from the UA, Denmark, Germany, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and elsewhere used the Mars Garden in a unique experiment. Organized into six teams, the scientists remotely controlled Mars rovers and prototype instruments from just inside Space Science, where they could observe the results first-hand. Smith's team will run the imaging camera constructing contour maps, identifying rock types, measuring the magnetic properties of soil components, testing wind velocities and studying the most efficient way to compress all of the data for return to "mission control." At the mock site, mission control is the glassed-in, ground floor conference area in the Kuiper Space Sciences Building (the "fishbowl").

The design philosophy in the Mars garden suite was not to come up with the exact mix of rocks on mars, but to get close while keeping a geologic context in mind. The topography and dune materials were selected to test the ability of the IMP to differentiate various aeolian substances. Basalts and mantle nodules were chosen for surface cobbles in order to simulate the extremely undifferentiated surface of Mars. The Mars Pathfinder teams intended to have a diverse area to try their experiments, in addition to giving the IMP a mineralogical calibration.

IMP is one of three instruments to be launched in December, 1996, on NASA's $150 million Pathfinder mission. Smith's $5 million IMP camera will beam back the first pictures taken from Mars'surface since the Viking landers of 1976. Immediately upon landing on Mars, IMP will take in a full-color, 3-D, 360 degree panoramic view of the martian terrain with its two color-sensitive, stereoscopic "eyes," which connect with a 512x512 CCD. The overall Pathfinder mission will be to test engineering technologies for possible use later in a Mars global survey.

Daniel Washburn