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If airbags work well, then Mars landing sites can be chosen more boldly, says UB geologist

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The anticipated Mars landing on Jan. 24 of the Opportunity rover will be a bit more challenging than the Spirit's bounce onto the red planet earlier this month, according to a University at Buffalo geologist, but if it's successful, then scientists will be able to be much bolder about selecting future Mars landing sites.

"If both of these landers survive with airbag technology, then it blows the doors wide open for future Mars landing sites with far more interesting terrain," said Tracy Gregg, Ph.D., University at Buffalo assistant professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences and a planetary volcanologist.

Gregg, who headed a national conference at UB in 1999 regarding the selection of future Mars landing sites, is chair of the geologic mapping standards committee of the NASA Planetary Cartography Working Group. "With the success of Spirit, I feel so much more confident about future Mars landers," said Gregg. "The airbags seem to be able to withstand quite a bit of trauma."

Gregg remembers attending a conference presentation a few years ago by Matt P. Golombek, Ph.D., planetary geologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, at the time, the principal investigator on the Mars Pathfinder mission, in which he proposed the airbag landing technology.

"He listed the 15 steps that had to happen at exactly the right time and in exactly the right way in order for this technology to work. The general mood in the lecture hall was, 'Yeah, right, good luck,'" Gregg remembered. "Well, the next year, he got up to a standing-room-only crowd at a meeting of the same organization and he described all of the same steps that the Pathfinder had successfully completed on Mars. He got a standing ovation."

The selection of Mars landing sites is a complex balancing act, Gregg says, where the potential for important scientific discoveries has to be balanced against the requirement that sites be absolutely safe so that the rove
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Contact: Ellen Goldbaum
goldbaum@buffalo.edu
716-645-5000 x1415
University at Buffalo
15-Jan-2004


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