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University of Iowa News Release

Jan. 2, 2003

UI Engineers Aid Search For Signs Of Water On Mars

True or false: The camera never lies.

If you answered "false," then you already have some idea of the challenge that faced University of Iowa researchers as they assisted NASA geologists who will interpret images of Martian rocks captured by NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers beginning Saturday, Jan. 3. At stake is the question of whether Mars ever contained liquid water, assumed to be essential to life.

Following a seven-month, 300-million mile journey, the golf-cart-sized Spirit is scheduled to land Jan. 3 near the center of Gusev Crater, which may once have contained a lake. Opportunity, Spirit's twin craft, will touch down Jan. 25 at Meridiani Planum, a region containing exposed deposits of a mineral that usually forms under watery conditions. Depending upon the images NASA geologists view and how they interpret those images, scientists may learn that liquid water once flowed on the surface of Mars.

During the past year, Geb Thomas, (left) assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and robotics expert in the University of Iowa College of Engineering, directed a $520,000 NASA geology project that included five UI engineering students. The five are: Justin Glasgow of Derby, Kan.; Kristopher Halter of Iowa City; Arjun Kanduri of India; Jacob Wagner of Iowa City; and Zhen Xiang of China. The group spent time in the Arizona desert familiarizing NASA geologists with camera distortion and resolution issues, as well as the various kinds of rocks the Rovers may encounter during the mission. Thomas' methodology was straightforward.

First the geologists were shown video images and asked to describe what they saw. Later, they inspected the Arizona site in person and offered a second description. Among other things, the video images were distorted, making the rocks look smoother and rounder -- a look more indicative of water-caused weathering -- than they appeared in person. As a result, Thomas says, "The geologists were biased toward seeing things as being more round than they really were." Other video findings included the geologists overestimating the tilt of the ground and having difficulty agreeing among themselves about the size, color and roundness of the rocks.

"Sediment is critically important to geologists in determining what kind and how much water flowed at a site. They know the size of sand grains and rocks that would have been wind-borne versus the size that would have been carried by water. We needed to help geologists measure them," Thomas says.

Thomas says that the Mars Exploration Rover experience has been helpful as he plans to participate in a 2009 NASA Mars mission and a three-year, $3 million NASA project that will take him to Chile's Atacama Desert in fall 2004.

According to Thomas, "Designing successful space missions demands that a delicate balance be struck between engineering achievement and scientific discovery. Perhaps nowhere is this balance more evident than in the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover mission, which places great demands on both engineering and science. The GROK Lab (which Thomas directs) in the UI department of mechanical and industrial engineering has been involved in testing mobile robot systems for planetary exploration for seven years, focusing on the interaction between the operator and the robot system.

"We are engineers trying to help other engineers to better do their jobs," he says. "Our Mars Rover work represents ground-breaking research being conducted with mission geologists in an attempt to help the scientists and engineers communicate their needs objectively in a common language. I think our work will help drive robotic explorations over manned space flight exploration."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009, gary-galluzzo@uiowa.edu.