Scientists in California are thrilled with a steady stream of pictures and data from the Mars rover Spirit, which touched down on the Red Planet January 3, Pacific Standard Time. Two high school students are sharing the excitement as part of the Mars exploration rover team.
The two are among 16 young people from 12 countries who are joining the mission team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The students are coming in pairs to the California facility, each pair staying for one week.
Rafael Morozowski, a 16-year-old from Brazil, was part of the first two-member team, and says he and his partner, Courtney Dressing, were in the evaluation room with NASA scientists as the first rover images arrived from the Red Planet. He was speechless as he watched the panoramic pictures, which had traveled 170 million kilometers.
"They were really stunning because these were pictures arriving from Mars, not just something that you've downloaded from the Internet," he said. "So everybody was really amazed by it. And every time there was another pan-cam picture, it was pretty interesting because it's a place we didn't know yet."
The students were there a few days later when the rover unfolded and stood up, to give it a better view of the Martian landscape.
Courtney Dressing of Alexandria, Virginia, also 16 years old, says the students have shared ideas with NASA scientists, who are always ready to answer their questions.
"It's great. We're attending science meetings, and also listening to the scientists' views on the rocks and soils they've found," she said. "In addition to that, we're also adding hour markings to the images of the Mars dial."
The two are adding virtual markings to a metal plate with a vertical shaft at its center. Identical fixtures are on each rover. They were initially used to calibrate rover cameras. Now, with computer-generated markings, the Mars dial seen on earth displays Martian time, even as the rover shifts position.
The Red Rover Goes to Mars student astronaut project, which brought the youngsters to Pasadena, is sponsored by the Planetary Society, a private organization, and the Lego Company, which makes children's toys.
The student-scientists have their own offices and attend rover team meetings. But they are getting little sleep, having to work on Martian time, late at night in California when the sun is up over Gusev crater, where the rover landed. Although they are sleep-deprived, Bruce Betts of the Planetary Society says they are getting a rare glimpse into the scientific process.
"It's the first time you've had international students selected through an open competition inside mission operations during a planetary mission," he said.
The students taking part in the program were selected from 500 applicants. Each wrote an essay suggesting research tasks for the rovers. Finalists were then interviewed by telephone.
Rafael Morozowski says one thing has surprised him. He says the NASA science assessment room is livelier and less organized than he had expected.
"Actually, the room is a mess. You have lots of people talking and drinking, eating, making jokes," said Rafael Morozowski. "I never thought it was going to be like that."
But scientist Bruce Betts says the researchers and engineers have a serious goal, as they look for signs that liquid water may have once existed on the Martian surface. Water could possibly have given rise to some form of life.
The Planetary Society promotes works to involve the public in space exploration. A recent celebration near the society's Pasadena headquarters brought thousands of enthusiasts to mark the rover landing, and to view the first pictures coming back from the lander. Mr. Betts says this mission is generating excitement among the general public as well as scientists.
"We also are seeing evidence of it in web traffic, clearly in news reports, in e-mails to us, a huge amount of public interest in this mission," he said. "What we hope comes out of it, of course, is more interest in Mars and space exploration."
The student astronaut teams will rotate through the NASA facility through the end of February. The next mission highlight will come January 24, California time, when the lander carrying the rover Opportunity touches down on the opposite side of Mars from the rover Spirit.