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Western University team takes the reins on NASA orbiter to image Mars

Dr. Livio L. Tornabene and the UWO-UA CPSX team speak with The Weather Network in a Skype interview about their two-week mission with NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, November 28, 2014, 6:13 PM - A global dust storm has been sweeping around the planet Mars for weeks now, but that isn't holding back a team of Western University students. Led by Dr. Livio L. Tornabene, they are taking over the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter starting November 30, for a two-week orbital tour of the Red Planet.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is a satellite that's been circling around our planetary next-door neighbour since 2006. From a height of about 250-320 kilometres, MRO aims a sophisticated suite of science instruments at the surface, to investigate Mars' geology, and act as a robotic spotter for potential surface mission landing zones. 

Included in that science suite is the HiRISE camera, which is capable of taking images with such high resolution that each pixel in the image is only 30 centimetres on a side. So far, MRO and HiRISE have provided scientists (and the public!) with some of the best images of the surface of Mars ever taken. Even now though, over 8 years after the orbiter arrived at Mars, HiRISE has only imaged a very small portion of the planet, just over 2 per cent of the total surface area. That may seem strange, but the hi-res images taken by the camera are relatively thin, and although Mars may be smaller than Earth, we're still talking about an entire planet here! Apparently, for HiRISE to image the entire surface in high-resolution, just once (without going back over images, which it often does for investigation purposes), it will take an estimated 350 years to get all of it.

Imaging campaigns are running all the time, though, mostly out of the University of Arizona, where the instrument's principle investigator, Alfred McEwen, is a professor of planetary sciences. However, other teams from other schools still get in on the fun too, and for the next two weeks, it's going to be a small group from the University of Western Ontario's Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX).

Leading this team is Dr. Livio L. Tornabene, an Adjunct Research Professor in the school's Department of Earth Sciences. Having worked on the MRO mission for years now, and with ample experience with the HiRISE camera, Dr. Tornabene is joined by PhD candidate Eric Pilles, grad student Ryan Hopkins and undergraduate Kayle Hansen, who are all working from November 30 to December 12 to collect images from the Martian surface.

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: CPSX team member Ryan Hopkins talks about one specific target they're especially excited about...

In addition to exploring regions of Valles Marineris, another point of interest is a rare 'triple crater' for Eric Pilles' work. One aspect of this will be to determine how this crater formed - from one object that split apart into three pieces when it entered the atmosphere, or whether the site was actually impacted by three separate objects in the exact same spot.

When working with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and specifically with HiRISE, there's always an overarching mission in mind, though.

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: Dr. Tornabene discusses what NASA focuses on with these observations.

Although the work is exciting, especially with the chance at being the very first person to see some of these high-resolution views of Mars, the mission planning and the two weeks of image gathering is intensive, with long hours and working on weekends. Just in the planning stage, the team scoured through 823 different targets for their observations, taken from their own requests and from the list of public suggestions on the HiRISE HiWish website. All of this while a global dust storm was obscuring most of the surface of Mars - further complicating their search and even calling into question whether they'd be able to see anything other than the tops of the massive volcanoes that dot the planet. Having narrowed their list down to around 150 targets to image during their 2-week-long window, recent Martian weather observations from MRO's MARCI instrument are giving them hope that the winds and dust will settle down to give them clear viewing to the surface.

Every job needs some de-stressing time, and a little fun of course. While Ryan Hopkins mentioned in the interview that team takes a bit of time off now and then from their hectic schedule to watch a few retro videos, they also get some help from a favourite snack food, and from an additional team member who is highly experienced in these matters.

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: Chocolate, and the fifth team member, Kona, makes an appearance.

With all of the work going into planning and running these observations from satellites like MRO, and perhaps especially with getting these spacecraft to Mars, why do we do it? Dr. Tornabene has the answer below, about how all of our explorations of space and other planets really comes full circle, back to the Earth and ourselves.

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