Tempe - Oct 14, 2001
When NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft reaches Mars on October 23, Arizona State University geologist Philip Christensen will be as nervous as a scientist can be, watching a critical experiment enter a key phase. He has an important instrument aboard the spacecraft which is entering a difficult stage in its journey and all he can do is sit and watch television, waiting for word of success or failure.
Make no mistake about it, science can be risky business, particularly when your experiment is millions of miles away - so far away it takes a radio transmission traveling at the speed of light eight and a half minutes just to reach it.
Christensen, Korrick Professor of Geology, whose life's work as a planetary geologist has been intimately involved in the triumphs and the tragedies of exploring Mars. Though recent failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander spacecraft have received a lot of media attention, Christensen's experience with the difficulties of research in space has an even deeper history.
Christensen has been doing planetary research since he was a student (working with the Mariner 9 and subsequent Viking missions), but his first big research project was directing the thermal emission spectrometer experiment on the Mars Observer mission - years of careful design and planning by Christensen and his team that came to a sudden end on August 21, 1993 as the spacecraft disappeared approaching Mars.
Almost half a decade later, Christensen got another shot with a similar experiment on the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), which was launched in November of 1996. Though the MGS and Christensen's Thermal Emission Spectrometer have since been spectacularly successful, the mission was not without worry and difficulty. A problem with a solar panel put everything in doubt as the spacecraft entered orbit, and the planned "aerobraking" maneuver had to be extended for a year before an orbit appropriate for the science experiments could be achieved.