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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Mars rover mission will see collaboration with UA researchers

Courtesy of Alfred McEwen Preparations are made to the HiRISE camera before its launch aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter years ago. The UA team leading the HiRISE project has also collaborated extensively with the Curiosity rover mission, taking images of its landing on Aug. 5.

For years, the UA-led High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, known as HiRISE, has taken images of Mars. Most recently, the camera’s imaging led to the successful landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, on Aug. 5, and a team plans to continue collabrating with the mission.

A UA team has run the HiRISE camera, aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and has been very involved in the Mars Science Laboratory project, according to Alfred McEwen, a professor in the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and principal investigator of the HiRISE project.

Along with securing a safe landing for the Mars rover on the floor of the planet’s Gale Crater, the team has mapped the whole region in high-quality imaging. They will also cover all the areas the rover might go to, in color, in order to secure safe routes for its travel.

A UA team of about 30 helps work on HiRISE which monitor images as they come in, as well as monitor the engineering data for the camera, such as the temperature, according to McEwen.

The team works on uplink and downlink, which involves setting the camera parameters and putting this into format to send to the spacecraft. As the data is returned, the team pulls it here and has automated pipeline processing to produce images, McEwen said.

The main scientific benefit of HiRISE is the ability to investigate Mars at high-resolution scales, according to Shane Byrne, an assistant professor in the UA department of planetary sciences and a co-principal investigator of HiRISE. Mars is constantly changing and now, thanks to the HiRISE camera, scientists can see these changes.

“We can build up three-dimensional pictures of what the surface is like and we can do it all in color,” Byrne said. “The HiRISE camera is really a revolutionary instrument and it’s definitely the most powerful camera that’s ever flown on a planetary science mission before.”

Before HiRISE, it was necessary to look at lower resolution data sets, which made it more of a gamble trying to pick a landing site, according to McEwen. HiRISE is the first camera that can actually measure meter-scaled objects, such as boulders, which can pose a problem for landing.

“The rover team also uses HiRISE to choose the path the rover can drive,” McEwen said. “They can see hazards like sand dunes and decide ‘OK, we need to go around that.’”

One of the major challenges the UA team faced was predicting where MSL would be in order to get a clear picture of the Curiosity rover descending. There were constant updates on the prediction as well as updates to the camera parameters, McEwen said.

However, once Curiosity landed and the picture was obtained, this was only another accomplishment to add to the list of contributions to Mars’ exploration and to planetary exploration in general, McEwen said.

“This department and laboratory have been involved in ever major planetary mission since the beginning of NASA planetary exploration, going back to the first lunar exploration missions,” McEwen said.

UA involvement with Mars missions is far from over, as the life expectancy of the camera is set for a while more, Byrne said, adding that the camera is still functional and there is enough fuel on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for another 10 years or so.

“We could be in business for quite a while longer,” Byrne added, “and hopefully we’ll still be taking images of Mars at the end of the decade.”

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