After the twin Mars Exploration Rovers bounce onto the red planet and begin touring the Martian terrain in January, onboard spectrometers and cameras will gather data and images - and the rovers wheels will dig holes.
Working together, a Cornell University planetary geologist and a civil engineer have found a way to use the wheels to study the Martian soil by digging the dirt with a spinning wheel. "Its nice to roll over geology, but every once in a while you have to pull out a shovel, dig a hole and find out what is really underneath your feet," says Robert Sullivan, senior research associate in space sciences and a planetary geology member of the Mars missions science team. He devised the plan with Harry Stewart, Cornell associate professor of civil engineering, and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena.
The researchers perfected a digging method to lock all but one of a rovers wheels on the Martian surface. The remaining wheel will spin, digging the surface soil down about 5 inches, creating a crater-shaped hole that will enable the remote study of the soils stratigraphy and an analysis of whether water once existed. For controllers at JPL, the process will involve complicated maneuvers -- a "rover ballet," according to Sullivan -- before and after each hole is dug to coordinate and optimize science investigations of each hole and its tailings pile.
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