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ASU scientist part of Mars rover team receiving astronautics award

Philip Christensen
September 12, 2012

Philip R. Christensen, Regents' Professor of Geological Sciences in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, is among the engineers and scientists being honored by the 2012 Haley Space Flight Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The award is going to the entire mission team for NASA's long-lived Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

Christensen, director of the Mars Space Flight Facility on the Tempe campus, is the designer and principal investigator for the Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES), an instrument carried by both Spirit and Opportunity. Working at heat-sensing wavelengths, Mini-TES was built to operate as a mineral-scouting device.

"Mini-TES played a critical role in identifying targets of interest which the rover then studied in detail with the instruments on its robotic arm," says Christensen. "For example, it identified more than a dozen different rock types on Mars, nearly all of them previously unknown."

He adds, "The instrument also led to several key discoveries. In the Columbia Hills in Gusev Crater, it spotted opaline silica deposits, which are evidence of hot springs. Mini-TES data also led ASU research scientist Steve Ruff to discover carbonate rocks there. Both findings clinched the case for significant water in Gusev."

Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, is accepting the Haley Award for the team at the AIAA's annual meeting, Sept. 12, 2012. The AIAA is the world's largest technical society for the aerospace profession, with more than 35,000 individual members worldwide.

Although partly upstaged by the Aug. 6 landing of Curiosity, NASA's new Mars Science Laboratory rover, both Spirit and Opportunity have set outstanding space exploration benchmarks. Landing in January 2004, each far exceeded its three-month design lifetime. Spirit operated more than six years in Gusev Crater. Its twin, Opportunity remains on the job today in Endeavour Crater on Meridiani Planum.

During the past two months, Opportunity has driven about a third of a mile, extending its total overland travel to 22 miles. The rover is surveying outcrops of layered rock in search of clay minerals to gain new insights into ancient wet environments.

"The MER rovers proved that medium-size rovers can play major role in Mars exploration," says Christensen. "Curiosity is a magnificent machine, but follow-on rovers are more likely to resemble Spirit and Opportunity. In the future, I expect we'll see a number of modest-sized rovers sent to different locations. Each of these would be equipped to find and cache potential samples for return to Earth."

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.