Life runs like clockwork for Martian scientists

With their clocks set to follow the slightly longer Martian day, scientists back on Earth analysing images from two Nasa probes now on the Red Planet keep a tight schedule that includes several daily meetings.

“The day starts at about 11am Martian time,” said Claude d’Uston, who adds 39 minutes and 35 seconds to his watch to follow the Martian day. “I look at whether data has appeared on my screen and when they arrived.”

Uston, a 54-year-old member of the Mars Exploration Rover mission, oversees one of the geological instruments on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed on Mars this month.

The Frenchman, one of many scientists working at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here, is also research director at the Space Research Center on Radiation in Toulouse, France.

A first meeting quickly follows his 11am Martian time routine. At the gathering, each team presents the data the rovers have sent back to earth.

Uston is in charge of an X-ray spectrometer conceived at the Max Planck Institute in Mayence, Germany.
The instrument measures the concentration of the main elements found in rocks and soil.

Before the rovers were launched, Uston’s research centre in Toulouse sought to ensure the German-made instrument would survive the landing, temperature changes and electromagnetic emissions on Mars.

After the first morning meeting, which lasts half an hour, Uston makes a preliminary analysis of the data he received that morning.

The scientists specialising in different fields, such as mineralogy and geology, are tasked with analysing data and proposing hypotheses.

Once the mission reaches cruising speed, the scientists split in two teams, one for each rover.

The Spirit scientists are on the lab’s fourth floor and Opportunity scientists are one floor above.

A second meeting is scheduled to tie up loose ends before the third and largest meeting, which takes place at 4pm Mars time.

“It lasts two hours and everything is reviewed, from the condition of the vehicle and its instruments,” Uston said. “The specialists present a scientific analysis and propose measurement activities.

“We evaluate what is feasible and decisions are made for the next day’s schedule,” he added. “We also decide what we will tell the media and what images we will show them.”

He has had less to do lately, however, since Spirit has been idled by technical problems and Opportunity is not scheduled to start moving for another 10 days or so.

“We had scheduled a spectrum every three or four days, but we are at a standstill right now.”

Before the breakdown, Spirit had started examining a Martian rock the researcher named Adirondack.

“The data is still inside Spirit,” said Uston, who is eager to examine it as soon as the rover is fixed. - Sapa-AFP

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