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Working on Mars

by Keri Bean

June 10, 2008 -
Life on Mars has been pretty smooth so far. We’ve gotten into the groove of things and the team has had time to catch up on sleep. Living on Mars time is much easier than I thought it would be!  I’m typically a night owl, and the shifts have been starting later and later each night, so it’s been easy to adjust.

I’ve been assigned quite a few jobs here on Mars. I’ve been analyzing exposure times of the images coming down on the SSI. For example, if there’s a particularly shiny part of the lander in your field of view, you have to be careful not to overexpose, else the image will have white streaks and blobs surrounding the point it overexposed (called blooming). If the rock you want to image is in the shadow of the lander, then you have to increase your exposure time to make sure the rock shows up well. There are a lot of factors to take into account, such as the time of day, shadows, how reflective your target is, etc.

There is a set of tools we use for the SSI that makes it easier to analyze the images. Before the mission started, my job was to find the bugs in the tools. Since I’ve had so much experience working with these tools, I’m somewhat of a resident expert on them and can help anyone on the team learn how to use them or answer questions. I’ve also used these tools to make some of the cool stereo images you see. Depending on what images you have, you can also make false color images with two or three raw images from the lander.

Coming from out of town, I was pleasantly surprised at how astronomy friendly Tucson is. With the strict light pollution standards, even in the middle of the city you can see more stars than I could see on Texas A&M’s campus. You’re also a stone throw away from Kitt Peak National Observatory, which was a blast to visit. I got to be present for a calibration test on the 4 meter telescope. On a good day, you can pick out the telescopes on the mountains surrounding Tucson. I’ve been able to use the Steward Observatory telescope on the University of Arizona campus, thanks to my friend Joshua Nelson, the chairman of the national Students for the Exploration and Development of Space organization. I’ve also run into other Aggies out here, and it’s comforting to know that the Aggie family is just as strong a thousand miles away from Aggieland! In east Texas there aren’t many hills, let alone mountains, so my breath still gets taken away walking out of my apartment and seeing the mountains so close.

I love seeing the surprised reaction of people when I tell them I’m an undergrad working on a mission on Mars. My suggestion for anyone who might be heading down this path is to work hard in your classes and if there is a professor doing research you’re interested in, ask them about it. If you express an interest, most are more than willing to at least show you what they do. It is because of one professor noticing my interest in space that I got referred to Mark Lemmon, who has been kind enough to take me under his wing and let me work on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and now Phoenix.

If you’re still in high school, get as much college credit as you can so you can focus on the classes in your major once you get to college. Also make sure you’re doing something you’re passionate about. I’ve been interested in meteorology since preschool, albeit until I saw the launch of STS-114, I wanted to work in weather forecasting. I get to balance my love of weather and space by being actively involved in the storm chasing and American Meteorological Society chapter organizations on campus and being an instrument downlink analyst for the Phoenix mission. I have also been fortunate enough to be given really supportive family, friends, and a wonderful boyfriend who have helped push me towards my dreams.

Well, it’s time to head back to work and analyze the images from today. See ya’ll later!