A group of small, unnamed craters in the martian southern hemisphere is the first site captured by a group of middle school students who are operating the camera system onboard NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft this week.
The acquisition of the image marks the beginning of the Mars Student Imaging Project, a science education program funded by NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and operated by the Mars Education Program at Arizona State University, Tempe. The project gives thousands of fifth to 12th grade students the opportunity to do real-life planetary exploration and to study planetary geology using Odyssey's visible-light camera.
"It was incredible to watch their faces. They really understood and appreciated what they were doing and that they were the first people on Earth to see that place on Mars," said Dr. Philip Christensen, the camera system's principal investigator at Arizona State University. The Mars student imaging project began with Christensen, who wants to give students a chance to participate in the fun of exploration.
The group of 11 sixth and seventh graders, visiting Arizona State from the Olympia School District in central Illinois, watched as commands were sent to the camera onboard Odyssey from the university's planetary imaging facility this week. Though imaging scientists hit the keys, the commands that told the camera to take a visible light picture at a precise set of martian coordinates were directed by the students, who chose the study site.
Later, the students were watching as data came back from the spacecraft and appeared as a raw image on the screen in the facility's auditorium. The image, showing a set of smaller, unnamed craters at eight degrees south martian longitude, 337 degrees west latitude, is the most detailed image ever obtained of the features in that area. (To see and download the image, go to http://clasdean.la.asu.edu/news/images/msipix/)
"It's been great -- so great," said an enthusiastic Lisa Behrens, age 13, shortly after the image was downloaded. "When the image came up, we had been waiting for that for like three, four months, and it was like, finally! And we hit the target right on! We can't wait to analyze it!"
After the data were received, the students processed the image and tried their hands at finding new information in the martian geography it revealed. The main crater in the image is apparently a relatively young crater with sharp sides.
The students got more from the visit than a new picture of Mars. They also got the chance to develop a new enthusiasm for science.
"They just don't want to stop with this," commented Olympia coordinator Fred Shears, who accompanied his students on the trip. "They want to keep studying Mars long-term. I was surprised by them this morning when they wanted to come in early to work on Powerpoint presentations of their research -- how often do you see that?"
"The student imaging program is a cool idea -- something that I always thought would be really neat to do when I was a kid," said Christensen. "We talked to a lot of teachers, and one of the things that really excited them was the thought that 'Wow, my class could actually be actively involved in exploring Mars rather than just standing on the outside watching!'"
"I think this is great because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we can be like really old and we'll still have this to look back on," said Jessica Lloyd, age 13. "It's great being able to find our own crater on Mars and to be able to analyze it. It might help us learn about the materials that Mars is made of. That would be so cool!"
JPL manages the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission for NASA's Office of Space Science in Washington, D.C. Principal investigators at Arizona State University in Tempe, the University of Arizona in Tucson and the Johnson Space Center, Houston, operate the science instruments. Additional science investigators are located at the Russian Space Research Institute and Los Alamos National Laboratories, New Mexico. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project, and developed and built the orbiter. Mission operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and from JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
For information about participating in the Mars Student Imaging Program go to: http://msip.asu.edu.
Additional information about the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission is at: http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/odyssey/.
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