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Mars Rover Begins Journey

Mars Rover Begins JourneyThe science manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Tufts graduate John Callas said his NASA team is ‘happy, elated but exhausted’ after last week’s successful landing. Pasadena, Cali.

Boston [01.16.04] Last week, NASA's robot explorer Spirit made a celebrated landing on Mars - sending back breathtaking photographs and capturing headlines worldwide. According to John Callas, 1981 Tufts graduate and science manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NASA team is amazed by how well the rover has done - and is excitedly overseeing the Spirit's first trip on Martian soil.

"There are probably several hundred people here for whom it's the best day of their lives," John Callas, science manager of the 280-member rover mission team, told The Washington Post about the Spirit's landing day. "Things are not supposed to go this well. We are caught off guard."

The $820 million NASA project -- a stunning success which bucked a trend of failed missions to the Red Planet -- took advantage of the closest approach Mars has made to Earth in 60,000 years.

"We now know with great certainty that we are in the place that we absolutely wanted to be: at Gusev Crater. There is a certain amount of luck involved in such things, but my hat is off to the navigators, because they just did a fantastic job, just greasing us in right where we wanted to be," Callas told Radio Netherlands.

Now, the team is undertaking the rover's first trip around the planet to collect data. The Spirit will roll to an unnamed crater -- an estimated 825 feet away from the landing spot - for exploration. The information is expected to help the scientists determine if Mars was ever a warmer, wetter place capable of sustaining life.

According to Callas, the mission has moved into a tactical phase, with scientist making decisions moment-to-moment based on the newest rover data.

"From now on [Callas said], the team will quickly analyze photographs and will plan Spirit's day during the 17-hour period when the craft sleeps," reported The Boston Globe.

As the Tufts graduate said in a statement, "What makes the mission so different from anything we've done before is we're operating the rovers in a non-deterministic way. We don't know what we'll do until we land and see what's there. Each day we'll command the rover based on what we have just learned. It's really an adventure that way."

Aside from the navigating the rover remotely across 106 million miles, the Tufts graduate and his NASA team are dealing with other out-of-this-world challenges, such as keeping up with Martian time. In order to stay synchronized with the rover's new home planet, the 280 team members are wearing special watches which measure the Martian day - which is 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than an Earth day.

Since the rover is solar powered, the team is working mostly between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mars time, when the sun is highest in the Martian sky. That four-hour window falls during a slightly different period each day - leaving team member shifting their schedules to compensate.

"Sometimes we'll be having breakfast at 10 p.m. and lunch at 6 a.m.," Callas told London's Telegraph.

"[Callas said] mission members who end their shifts during daytime hours are told to wear sunglasses on their way home to bed, to further minimize exposure to daylight during what are nighttime hours on Mars," reported the Associated Press.

The Tufts graduate said that helping NASA members thrive during the expected 90 day mission will be a challenge.

"It's going to be tough because everyone's going to want to be there all the time; it's an exciting project - there are going to be new discoveries every day," said Callas. "However, some of those people need to be at home sleeping, preparing for their shift - part of my job is making sure they don't overdo it."

But according to the Tufts graduate, the team is ready for the challenges of maneuvering across the planet's surface.

"Dr. Callas likened the team to the ‘happy, elated but exhausted' parents of a newborn child who did not sleep through the night," reported the Telegraph.

 

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