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Two University of Tennessee scientists are at NASA-s Jet Propulsion Laboratory this week, helping to interpret data from the latest Mars Rover mission.

Hap McSween and Jeff Moersch of UT-s department of earth and planetary sciences are co-investigators on the Mars Rover Exploration missions. Spirit, the rover which launched in early June, landed on Saturday and is now transmitting images of the red planet back to earth.

UT Scientists Hap McSween and Jeff Moersch

“We couldn-t have asked for a better spot for the landing,” McSween said on Monday evening. “The rover drifted a little longer than it was supposed to, and the place it drifted into has been stripped of dust by wind gusts. The instruments on the rover can-t see through dust, but here, nature has gotten rid of the dust. We-ll probably get a lot better scientific return out of this site than if we had landed in the bull-s eye.”

The earliest images, received over the past 48 hours, are pictures the equipment was pre-programmed to take, McSween said.

“Certain things have to be done prior to moving the rover. You have to take panoramic color photos of the scene. You use that for navigation, to decide where you want to go and to tell you how far away things are. In a week we-ll probably drive off for the first time and start doing some real science.”

But these early views present a contrast to the first images taken by Mars Pathfinder in 1997, he noted.

“There are no big rocks here, and we don-t have a clue yet as to why. The rocks are smaller and more angular.

“We-ve landed in what a lot of people think is a lake bed. We-re going to have to work to test that idea.”

McSween and Moersch directed three UT graduate students in research which helped to determine the Spirit-s landing site in the Gusev crater.

“The Gusev Crater site was controversial with NASA engineers because of landing safety issues,” McSween said. “The work that our students have done in strengthening the scientific argument for Gusev went a long way towards demonstrating that this choice of site is a compelling one.”

The graduate students, Keith Milam, Karen Stockstill, and Livio Tornabene will join McSween and Moersch at JPL later this month to help interpret information from the rover.

McSween began participation in NASA spacecraft missions in 1997 as a member of the science team for Mars Pathfinder. His interest in mission operations and spacecraft data analysis has continued, and he currently serves on the science teams for the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey spacecraft which are mapping the mineralogy of the Martian surface from orbit.

Moersch-s involvement with NASA spacecraft missions began when he was a student, working on the Voyager 2, Galileo, and Mars Observer missions. As a professional scientist, he has served as a Science Team Member on the Deep Space 2/Mars Microprobe mission, the Mars Odyssey Mission, and the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Read the News Sentinel story here.