Scientific achievement is translating into artistic inspiration at Arizona State University.
ASU scientists’ major role in Mars exploration is the catalyst behind a large replica of Red Planet terrain that sculptor Steve Hilton and masonry technician Rico Piper are crafting in the entrance to the school’s Mars Space Flight Facility.
The 10-by-15-foot installation made with 2,500 pounds of red clay will be part of an interactive display to teach schoolchildren about the United States’ current Mars land rover missions.
Students will activate remote control devices over the Internet to maneuver a small robotic vehicle across Hilton’s version of a Martian landscape.
The Red Rover, to be constructed mostly of Lego building blocks, will be equipped with a tiny camera. It will allow operators to take pictures of the clay model almost in the same way land rover and satellite instruments built at ASU are producing images of the real Mars.
ASU engineers, geologists and chemists have developed infrared cameras and other photo-imaging components for the Odyssey and Global Surveyor probes now orbiting Mars and two land rovers. The Spirit rover landed Jan. 6. The Opportunity rover is expected to arrive Jan. 23.
ASU’s imagers are key tools for the missions’ objective of obtaining the most extensive analysis ever of another planet’s surface mineralogy and atmospheric chemistry.
The data would help pave the way for manned missions to Mars.
"We’re exited about using a real piece of art to teach geology,’’ said Sheri Klug, director of ASU’s Mars Education Program.
It’s especially exciting for Hilton. He gets to combine knowledge gained in earning college degrees in geology and art education, as well as building his portfolio of work for a master’s degree in ceramic arts he’s pursuing at ASU.
"A lot of my artwork is about textures and geologiclooking shapes,’’ he said.
He’s fashioning about 15 varied geologic features — gullies, buttes, fault lines and specific kinds of rock formations — into his piece.
Hilton likens his approach to making art to the scientific method.
"People say art and science is a strange combination, but it really isn’t," Hilton said. "It’s the same thought process in science or art. You do what you think will work. If it doesn’t, you stop and theorize again, make another hypothesis and go off in another direction.’’
Hilton teaches art part-time at ASU and helps run the campus art galleries.
But before moving to Tempe a year and half ago, he spent years teaching basic astronomy and other sciences in addition to teaching art in Missouri, Alaska and East Coast middle schools and high schools.
His diverse experiences made him confident about showing ASU space scientists he understood the intricacies of their work and could represent it well with his art.
Hilton plans to complete his Red Planet landscape by the time scientists are to gather at ASU’s Mars facility for the countdown to the landing of the Opportunity rover.
The interactive rover display is to go online within days after that.