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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    UA students on the front line of ‘Phoenix’ mission

    Just call it UA-Mars.

    For the past three weeks, Arizona’s most far-flung campus has been NASA’s UA-led Phoenix Lander, an 18-foot space probe parked on the surface of the Red Planet. UA students working on the mission have been gaining valuable on-the-job and off-the-planet training.

    Peter Smith, who leads the mission as its principal investigator, estimated that out of the nearly150 people working for the mission, about 25 of them were students working at “”the most simple tasks to the most complex.””

    “”I think its one of the things that makes U of A special-that they really love getting students involved,”” said Cherie Achilles, a recent UA graduate and mission engineer who has worked on ‘Phoenix’ for almost three years. “”I think it’s awesome that you can get involved and have so much interaction with a NASA mission. It’s been really cool.””

    Mark Lemmon, who leads the Surface Stereoscopic Imager (SSI) team, said that students are “”really involved”” in the mission. The SSI is Phoenix’s onboard camera that helps mission scientists see what is happening on Mars.

    Students working on the SSI team have tasks that are far from simple. Students have gone so far as to design some of the tools the team uses to analyze data. Students were also responsible for keeping track of working with that data, which is not an easy task, Lemmon said.

    “”We are essentially networking with a computer a hundred million miles away, and we can only talk to it every once in a while,”” he said.

    In the years before the landing, Achilles tested the instruments that would go onboard ‘Phoenix’, adjusting their calibrations and doing data analysis. Now, as an instrument sequence engineer, she works as a liaison between the SSI instrument team and mission scientists.

    “”(The scientists) say, ‘We want to do this,’ and I say, ‘Yes we can,’ or, ‘No we can’t,’ or, ‘Give me a minute,'”” she said. “”We take what they want to do and figure out a way to do it.””

    “”They’re not going to have the scientific judgment of some of the senior science members, but they’re, in general, very talented,”” Lemmon said. “”You can just give them a problem and have them work very excitedly for a while, and when you come back, they have a solution.””

    Rick McCloskey, a mission engineer, said that students have been an integral part of the ‘Phoenix’ mission from the beginning remnants of the project.

    “”Without the students, we just couldn’t have done this – and I’m not just saying that,”” he said.

    Currently, four students work on McCloskey’s Payload Interoperability Testbed (PIT) team. The PIT team uses a working model of ‘Phoenix’ to test instrument commands before they’re done on Mars. The experience working on ‘Phoenix’ will help to give students a leg-up on the competition after college, McCloskey said.

    “”In my mind, if I’m a potential employer and I see that one of these students is working on a mission like this, I think it automatically puts them a step ahead of anyone else,”” he said.

    Not every student working on ‘Phoenix’ is directly involved in mission operations. Brian Egan, an optical sciences graduate, does public outreach for the mission, but said that his brush with Mars has still been beneficial.

    Even though he has not been working on a science or engineering team, he has still had the opportunity to chat with mission scientists with expertise in his major.

    “”That’s one of my favorite things about this mission,”” he said.

    Egan said that mission scientists have been eager to share their knowledge and experience with students. Many of the team’s scientists had been involved in past Mars missions, going all the way back to the 1976 Viking Program, NASA’s first Mars Lander.

    “”Some of these guys, they really want to talk,”” Egan said. “”For a student to be able to talk with these great veterans is amazing.””

    Student involvement in high-end scientific programs is nothing new to the university. Arizona has always had a strong tradition of student involvement in science, said Roger Tanner, chief engineer for the SSI camera.

    “”We’ve always done it here,”” he said. “”We’ve always had students working on our projects, building the cameras, and helping with our operations.””

    Smith predicted that the opportunities to work on projects such as ‘Phoenix’ would help to attract top-level talent to the school.

    “”People say, ‘Well the university is doing great things. I want to go there too,'”” he said.

    In getting students involved with ‘Phoenix’, the UA is also training the next generation of top-tier scientists, Smith said.

    “”(The students) bring the future,”” he said. “”If you don’t train young people to both love this field and be good at it, then when I retire, there will be no one to take over.””

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