March 20, 2007

Squyres receives Benjamin Franklin Medal for Mars Rover leadership; meanwhile, rovers keep proving their mettle

Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission and Cornell's Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, has been awarded the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science by the Franklin Institute.

The award, which is given for uncommon insight, skill or creativity, reads, in part:

"It is a rare occurrence when the principal investigator on a science project can capture a whole nation's fascination, but Steven Squyres did just that when he led the Mars Exploration Rover project, which landed the rovers Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in January 2004. The daily photos of sunsets over Mars's horizon, dramatically wind-swept dunes, and deep Martian trenches helped re-ignite interest in the U.S. space program. The rovers did more than send back pretty pictures; they found evidence that there was once water on Mars, and they have imaged the surface of the red planet to help scientists understand how it formed. While the mission was originally expected to last just 90 days, the rovers continued to work long past their planned lifetime and are still gathering data on the surface of Mars over three years later. ... Squyres oversaw the science on it all."

The Franklin Institute, established in 1824, recognizes leaders in physics, life sciences, engineering, chemistry, computer and cognitive science, and earth and environmental science. Previous recipients of the medal include Thomas Edison, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

Squyres will receive the award April 26 at the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Spirit and Opportunity keep toiling away. Spirit, at the Gusev crater, is busy analyzing the geology around a circular plateau known as Home Plate; while Opportunity, circumnavigating the rim of Victoria crater on Meridiani Planum, is studying layered sedimentary rocks in the crater's walls and searching for a way into (and out of) the crater.

Squyres called Victoria "absolutely the highest priority destination we could have reached" for its layers of exposed rock, each potentially offering new information about Martian history.

"Those layers of rock, if we can get to them, will tell us new stories about the environmental conditions long ago," he said when Opportunity reached the crater last September. "We especially want to learn whether the wet era that we found recorded in the rocks closer to the landing site extended farther back in time. The way to find that out is to go deeper, and Victoria may let us do that."