This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Getting the scoop on Mars

Squyres offers presentation on rover mission to Red Planet

Published: October 21, 2004

Contributing Editor

Steven Squyres, principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Project, is actually a teen-age boy speaking to audiences in the guise of a fully grown scientist.


Steven Squyres, principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Project, told members of the media before his formal presentation in Alumni Arena that since he cannot go to Mars himself, the next best thing was to build a robot "that is really an extension of ourselves that we can send to this other world."

Or so it seems after hearing him talk excitedly—and nearly nonstop—for more than an hour last week about his work as the face and voice of the NASA Mars missions as part of the UB Distinguished Speakers Series in Alumni Arena.

Squyres, now 48, was 13 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969, and though he was "just captivated" by what he saw on television, he already was calculating how to catch up and create his own place in space.

"I was obviously born too late to participate in Apollo," he said shortly before his presentation in Alumni Arena. "What I would love to do is to go to Mars myself, right? What I really want is Martian dirt in my own boots. But that's not going to happen. We are not at the right time in history for that. So for me, the next best thing was building the rover, a robot that has human qualities and human capabilities, that is really an extension of ourselves that we can send to this other world."

That wish came true following his embarking on an education and career that sounds like something out of Star Trek: a participant in many of NASA's planetary exploration missions, including the Voyager mission to Jupiter and Saturn, the Magellan mission to Venus and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission. Squyres is a co-investigator of the 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter missions, a member of the Gamma-Ray Spectrometer Flight Investigation Team for the Mars Odyssey mission and a member of the imaging team for the Cassini mission to Saturn. He received his doctorate from Cornell in 1981, served as a postdoctoral associate and research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, then returned to Cornell as a professor of astronomy.

For the past decade, Squyres has been occupied with the creation, launching and steering of Spirit and Opportunity—two "fiendishly complicated robots"—around the "cold, dry desolate world" that is Mars, gathering evidence that life-giving water once flowed on the planet's surface.

And, typical of any teen-ager, Squyres managed to talk NASA into handing over the keys to the rovers early.

"It only took us seven months to get from Earth to Mars; I wish we had had more time, to be honest with you," he said. "The reality was, that at the time we launched these vehicles, we didn't know how to drive them. We launched them not knowing how to operate them on Mars. We spent those seven very brief months using two test rovers back here on Earth to earn our Martian 'drivers' licenses' so we would know what to do once we were on the ground."

The man who frequently pulls out a pocket watch to check Earth time against the times at the two mission sites on Mars, also seems to enjoy pulling all-nighters, an unavoidable part of interplanetary research.

"The Martian day is not 24 hours long. It's 24 hours and 39 minutes long," he said. "I had 150 scientists. I had to split the team in half, with one part of the team working on Spirit, one working on Opportunity, everybody living on Mars time, but in two different Martian time zones—stay with me on this—because the landings were in two different places. So if you're working on Spirit and you have to switch to Opportunity, you get Martian jet lag."

Squyres says the Opportunity landing site "which, next to Ithaca, New York, my home, is probably my favorite place in the universe," was reached first out of research and, ultimately, out of luck. That's because the giant airbags protecting each rover cause them to bounce, potentially for miles, after they first hit the Mars surface. In the case of Opportunity, it transmitted photographs that showed it had landed in a place with "layered sedimentary rock—a geologist's dream—directly in front of the vehicle."

"I'm not a golfer, but after seeing this I'm thinking maybe I should take it up," he said to laughter. "Tiger Woods couldn't do this."

Squyres, casually dressed in black jeans and a button-down shirt, clearly has lost none of the excitement of his youth for space exploration. He excels in conveying the vast amounts of data gained from these missions into usable information for his listeners. Watching him speak, one gets the idea that he's ready to invite the younger audience members—many from the 20 or so Buffalo public schools that accepted an invitation to the talk—to follow him, Peter Pan style, back to NASA to help finish the job.

His video presentation on the missions was punctuated with sight gags of snafus he and his teams designed the vehicles to avoid. And here's how he explained why, following their landings, the $4-million-each rovers couldn't be driven dune-buggy style around the planet.

"Now once you get down on the surface, you're ready to fly, you're ready to sport. So we had a joystick, right? I'd like to be able to just steer it, to drive it around rocks, to tell it what to do, but you can't do that. And the reason you can't do that is because Mars is so far away that even traveling at the speed of light, it takes 10 minutes for the radio signal to get there. And once it gets there and it does something, then it takes 10 minutes for the signal to come back and tell you what happened, at which time, you've crashed into that rock you were trying to steer around. So what we've done is we've put some vision and some artificial intelligence into them."

The rovers, with their cameras and equipment, have gone months and miles beyond original estimates for how far and how long they would transmit information from Mars. And Squyres said NASA will continue to operate the rovers as long as they continue to run.

"They were designed to last for 90 days and drive 600 meters," he said. "We've gone so many days beyond that and so many meters beyond that. At this point, it's hard to say when they're going to give out on us. Our plan is to just explore until they're dead, just drive them until they drop. Taxpayers have invested $850 million in these vehicles so we want to get every last bit of science out of them that we can."