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USC Grad Returns to Mars


January 06, 2004 —

First 3-D color panorama of Gusev Crater, taken by the NASA "Spirit" rover's high resolution camera. NASA/JPL photo

After the initial “shock” of a near perfect landing on Mars, Jennifer Trosper, MSAE ’99, felt “relief, then happiness” as Spirit, the first of two Mars exploration rovers, bounced safely to a halt January 3 in an ancient impact crater thought to have held water billions of years ago.

Jennifer Trosper, MSAE '99, manager of daily operations for Spirit.
“It was kind of a déjà vu experience, especially after the pictures started coming down,” said Trosper, who was just finishing up her master’s degree in aerospace engineering at USC in 1999, when the last Mars lander met its demise and tumbled down a slope near the southern polar cap. Trosper is the mission manager for daily surface operations during Spirit’s 90-day tour of Gusev Crater, a bowl bigger than Connecticut near the Martian equator.

When Trosper was profiled in the Fall/Winter 2002 issue of USC Engineer, the pressure for NASA to succeed was great.

“It has to work,” she said then. “Everybody is looking at what we are doing because we failed the last two missions to Mars.”

Not many people experience déjà vu when a spacecraft lands on Mars, but Trosper is among the few who have already been to Mars. She served in a similar capacity as daily mission operations manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the highly successful 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission.

The current landing was “very Pathfinderesque,” she said after Spirit’s second day of life on the planet’s barren surface.

The energy and excitement of Spirit’s phenomenal descent into the Martian atmosphere hasn’t worn off inside the Mission Control Center at JPL. Scientists are calling the landing site a “scientific sweet spot,” perfectly suited for their vehicle, and just 40 or 50 feet away from a shallow circular depression. Images of that depression, named “Sleepy Hollow,” are so intriguing to science payload principal investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University that it may become Spirit’s first scientific target.

The Spirit rover, still folded up, surveys its new home in Gusev Crater, hours after landing. The large cylinder in the foreground is the base of the rover's pancam mast assembly. A shallow depression, named "Sleepy Hollow," lies about 40 to 50 feet away. NASA/JPL photo
Trosper’s job now is to coordinate the daily hardware and software operations that will keep Spirit alive. It’s challenging work, she said, because it involves a lot of juggling.

For the next few days, her team will monitor Spirit's onboard systems, such as the thermal and power systems, while the 384-pound rover powers up and prepares to stand upright. The vehicle was scheduled to roll off its exit ramp onto the Martian surface on January 11, nine days into the mission, but operations engineers have postponed the egress until January 14, so they can try to more fully retract the airbags before Spirit's departure.

If Sleepy Hollow remains Spirit's first scientific target, the rover will loop halfway around the lander and head north for the hollow. Scientists will most likely ask the rover to stop along the way and
study several rocks that look like they've been polished by Martian winds. But even those plans may change, Squyres cautioned, if images taken by the rover's high-resolution panoramic camera reveal other more tantalizing features later this week.

Spirit’s primary mission is to study a wide variety of rocks and soil in search of clues to the presence of water in Mars’s early history. The rover will be able to travel as far in a few days – about 100 yards -- as the Pathfinder Sojourner rover did in its entire mission. A twin rover, Opportunity, is set to land in Meridiani Planum, on the opposite side of the planet, on January 24 (Pacific Standard Time), to study mineral deposits that may have formed in association with liquid water early in the planet's history.



Diane Ainsworth