Pathfinder missions to Mars recreated in 3-D

The recent NASA mission to Mars was described and simulated by Dan Britt, project manager and operations director of the Imager for Mars Pathfinder mission, on Tuesday in Brooks-Rogers.

In his lecture, Britt outlined the purpose of the Pathfinder mission, the technical aspects that made the mission possible, and the information the mission procured. Britt “bloopers”, slides and three-dimensional posters in conjunction with 3-D glasses were used to educate the audience.

In three years, Britt and his colleagues built the three-part Imager Mars Pathfinder (IMP) machine and equipped it with data-gathering technology. A temperature and wind velocity antenna was installed atop an alpha x-ray proton spectrometer which analyzes soil samples. On the underside there are five magnets installed by the Niels Bohr Institute that analyze minerals. The IMP gathered views of the planet from an unimpeded height of six feet above the Martian ground.

Britt’s imager is the source of our current images of Mars’ Anes Valley. The images the IMP took of Mars, such as those of Yogi rock, Barnacle Bill, Twin Peaks, Big Crater and rocks such as Spud, Piglet, Hobbs and Meatball were sharp enough to reveal fluted surfaces in the rock. Britt said these names were determined by criteria, which are unrelated to NASA, such as being easy to spell, easy to remember, and to have a reference to the surfaces in the rock.

The images captured by the IMP awakened scientists to Mars’ tendency to experience frequent driving winds and mini tornadoes. Evidence gathered from other angles of the IMP such as “cobbles, pebbles and sockets” on the ground as well as dust-filled sunsets on the horizon further supported these hypothesized weather patterns.

These three-dimensional images proved to be priceless entities for the researchers. Geography such as trenches and craters usually undetected in two-dimensional images literally jumped out at scientists when viewed in three-dimension. To show this effect to the audience, 25-foot murals hung outside Brooks-Rogers for viewing with 3-D glasses.

The rocky terrain made it necessary to equip the IMP with a self-warning system. The rover has what Britt denoted as “three levels of autonomous terrain avoidance:…happy go lucky, cautious or afraid of its own shadow.” According to Britt, this intuitive mechanism made controlling the rover challenging at times.

Another challenge the rover posed was an engineering flaw that reversed the angle of the image taken, for example, taking an image of the ground instead of an image of the moon. Examples like these challenges comprised the “bloopers” section of Britt’s lecture. However, the list of achievements accomplished by the mission far outnumbered such mishaps.

These accomplishments include finding evidence of rocks with high silica content, a strong surface to temperature gradient [the temperature would change roughly 20 degrees Celsius in the first two meters of elevation] and, as Britt claims, “entertainment that cost less than Water World and had more viewers.”

The Pathfinder intercepted Mars on July 4, 1997 after a six to seven month flight through space. Information reception from the rover ceased after three months on Mars as planned, but the rover remains there where, for all we know, it is still broadcasting information on a wavelength not yet identified by NASA scientists. The project will officially end September, 1998.