Viewport: New Studies of an Ancient World
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, July 2012
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Air & Space.
At the end of the Apollo era, the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS) was founded at the National Air and Space Museum. Like many scientists studying the solar system at the time, the CEPS researchers focused on the moon because of the new data and abundant rock samples returned to Earth by the Apollo astronauts. But even as the last of the lunar missions were being planned, a host of robotic probes had already been dispatched to a new target: Mars.
No other planet has intrigued us quite like the Red Planet. The Viking landers and orbiters reached Mars in 1976, triggering the first detailed studies. Geologists in CEPS used the orbiter images to investigate Martian volcanoes and volcanic landscapes; faults, sand dunes, and other desert landforms; and networks of valleys formed long ago by flowing water.
Twenty years later, the next great era of Mars exploration began. Images and data from the Mars Global Surveyor, which operated from 1997 to 2006, and Mars Odyssey, which has been mapping the planet since 2001, propelled many studies in CEPS, including an exploration of one of Mars’ oddities: the difference in elevation between its hemispheres. The southern is almost all highlands; the northern, all low. The new data also assisted studies of the planet’s climate and of where and how recently water has flowed on its surface.
CEPS scientists are now involved in many of the missions to Mars launched over the last decade. On page 12, one of our postdoctoral fellows describes how she and her colleagues extract information from new pictures and data. CEPS scientists helped develop tools to process data from the first radar sounder flown to Mars—aboard the European spacecraft Mars Express—and were among the first to analyze the subsurface features it detected. The Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity have revolutionized robotic, ground-based geological study. CEPS scientist John Grant, who has helped guide the rovers, is analyzing their data to better understand the role water played in forming Martian sedimentary deposits and the likelihood that such deposits supported life. The most recent spacecraft to arrive, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, carries among its instruments a high-resolution radar sounder and the highest resolution camera ever sent to Mars. On those instrument teams, CEPS scientists are helping to acquire, process, and analyze data.
Finally, the occasion of this special issue is the landing on Mars of the largest and most ambitious rover ever built, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity. If all goes well, John Grant will help analyze the first images returned from the landing site he helped select: Gale crater, an impact crater with a mountain of layered sedimentary deposits on its floor. Curiosity will give planetary scientists a wealth of new information and continue the long history of Mars research here in CEPS.
J.R. Dailey is the Director of the National Air and Space Museum.