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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A NASA probe is scheduled to scoot across Mars’ surface this summer to find and analyze geological samples.

When it does, Dr. Harry McSween at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville will help determine which rocks it analyzes and what they reveal about the question of past life on Mars.

McSween, head of geology at UT-Knoxville, is one of 19 scientists recently chosen to participate in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mars Pathfinder Mission, which is slated to land on the Red Planet July 4.

McSween said Pathfinder’s rover will carry a camera and sophisticated equipment to give scientists a visual and chemical peek at rocks on Mars.

“The rover will be able to drive up to rock, look at it and perform a chemical analysis,” McSween said.

“My job is to look at the images that are sent back, help select which rocks are to be analyzed and interpret the analyses in terms of the mineralogy and the origin of the rocks.”

McSween’s published findings on Martian meteorites are central in most theories about the Red Planet’s geological history and its potential for life.

Pathfinder’s landing site at the mouth of an ancient, dried-up river bed in Mars’ Ares Valley may reveal new clues to those mysteries, he said.

“This is a ‘grab bag’ site,” McSween said. “This river may have once carried lots of water and different kinds of rocks from the Martian Highlands and dumped them right where Pathfinder will land.”

McSween said scientists have never seen a Martian sedimentary rock, which is formed by layers of sediment accumulating over time. All Martian meteorites examined on Earth are igneous, or fire-formed, he said.

“Ideally, we would like to analyze some sediments,” McSween said. “We may even find some limestone which would indicate that Mars once had a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere that was warmer, wetter and more conducive to life.”

The Pathfinder Mission will conduct experiments on Martian geology, atmosphere, weather and mineralogy. McSween said the mission will enable scientists to calibrate instruments for the Mars Global Surveyor, which will orbit and map the surface of Mars a few months after Pathfinder.

McSween is also on NASA’s Global Surveyor team.

McSween’s work on the mission will be conducted from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Contact: Dr. Harry McSween (423-974-2366)