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Students At Pomona College Get Rare Opportunity Involving a Mars Spacecraft

Students in a Pomona College Planetary Geology class are in the midst of an opportunity that many planetary scientists only dream about. On April 19, they ordered photographs of specific geologic features on Mars to be taken by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter for their own student-designed research projects. They’ll receive the beautiful photos by April 26, if all goes as planned.

The photos from Mars Odyssey’s thermal emission imaging system (THEMIS) will be used by the students to investigate aeolian (wind-blown) processes, a potential ocean shoreline, outflow channels and the complex interplay between subsurface ice and impact craters.

According to Professor Eric Grosfils, who teaches Planetary Geology, the Pomona students, who are primarily freshmen and sophomores, will be one of the first college classes to have this type of opportunity. To date most of the Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP) education outreach effort has focused on K-12.

“For that matter,” says Grosfils, “I’ve never gotten to target a Mars spacecraft to have it collect a particular image in my 15 years in geology. It’s incredible that my introductory students have this opportunity.”

In early April, that opportunity almost slipped through their fingers when a problem with the spacecraft caused the orbiter to go silent. NASA fixed the problem within a week but Grosfils and his students had to decide if there was still enough time to complete the student projects before semester grades were due. Taking a deep breath, the class decided to continue. “The students are excited,” Grosfils reports, “a little panicked too but definitely excited.”

“I think its freaking amazing!,” says Bradley Markle ’08, who is leaning toward a geology major because of the class. “I never would have thought I’d be able to do this. Its especially cool because the area we want to photograph has never had these kinds of pictures taken of it. … I’m on the aeolian processes project, measuring the wavelengths of sand dune fields in craters. [Our Mars photograph] will give us a look at a crater that has never had a [THEMIS] picture of it taken before. We're hoping and have some reason to think that there will be sand dunes in it.”

Classmate Nathan Porter ’08 sees working with a satellite “possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity.” A member of the outflow channel team, he believes that, “Of all the geological processes on Mars, the study of past surface water has the greatest weight in the potential discovery of ancient life.” Porter is deciding between geology and economics as a possible major.

Students began designing five team projects in March and submitted their research proposals to the MSIP team. All five projects were approved, to the surprise of the students who then began work on their photo requests, both a top choice and a back-up. (See photo samples at To answer their research questions, students will use both these new images along with images and data already published or available online. Final projects are due May 4.

Rocco Addante ‘08, another member of the outflow channel team, notes that the class projects are “a great way to show students that what they are learning in class can be applied to the real world and used to address the same questions that concern professionals.” MSIP is run from Arizona State University under the direction of Dr. Philip Christensen, the principal investigator on THEMIS.

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Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP)

Mars Odyssey Orbiter Information:

THEMIS photo samples can be viewed at:
Students will be using “visible” images, not the infrared camera images.

Summary of Class Research Proposals:

Team 1 - Aeolian (wind-blown) Processes. Mars is a dry, dusty, windy planet. This team will try to determine whether or not large the geometries of large sand dunes formed in impact craters in a given region on Mars are affected by the size and depth of the crater (things that would be expected to affect the wind moving the sand).

Team 2 - Ocean Shoreline. It has been proposed that Mars may have once had a northern polar ocean, and various scientists have conducted tests to see if they can find evidence that such a large body of water once existed. This team wants to see if THEMIS imagery can reveal
anything new at a proposed shoreline location. This may occur at a large crater-occupying body of water instead of the northern ocean due to constraints on the latitude the camera can capture during this time of the year.

Team 3 - Outflow Channels. In several locations on Mars, mega-channels exist that have been a prime focus of study for many years. Did they form catastrophically (one big flood event) or via sustained flow? This team will use THEMIS imagery to ask -- did a major channel, one not as heavily studied in the past, form in a single burst flood or as a result of multiple flood events?

Teams 4 & 5 – Subsurface Ground Ice. There is extensive evidence that water in the form of subsurface ground ice exists across much of Mars. Impact craters, which punch into and excavate the subsurface, also have characteristic depth-to-diameter geometry relationships, and by looking at the nature of the ejecta thrown out of the crater (when does it become "mud-puddle" like, forming something called a rampart crater ejecta) the depth to the water/ice layer can be estimated.
Team 4 is using this approach to map out depth-to-ice in two areas near the equator of Mars to see how/if they differ.

Team 5 is examining whether the depth-to-diameter relationship of rampart craters in two areas actually agrees with what the relationship between these parameters is expected to be... Do these craters, punching into volatile-rich substrate, have different fundamental geometric properties?