High hopes for Arizona State University’s contributions to space exploration are riding on the land rover Opportunity that’s set to reach Mars tonight.
Its scheduled arrival about 10:05 p.m. Arizona time follows the landing three weeks ago of the Spirit rover. Both golf cartsize vehicles carry components developed by ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility.
But Opportunity is going to the other side of the Red Planet, to a place where ASU’s technology will get a shot at showing its full scientific potential.
Its work site will be in an area called Meridiani Planum.
"That’s our site. We picked it. (NASA) wouldn’t be going there if not for our test data showing this is one of the more interesting places on the planet,’’ said ASU geologist Philip Christensen.
His team developed the thermal emissions spectrometers designed to reveal the chemical and mineralogical composition of the Martian surface. The devices are key tools on two satellites orbiting Mars, as well as on the two land rovers.
Data from spectrometers on the orbiters — Odyssey and Global Surveyor — convinced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that the Meridiani site is a promising place to look for evidence of flowing water and signs of life on Mars, Christensen said.
The Spirit rover is in the Gusev Crater, where the effectiveness of ASU’s sensing instruments is limited because thick layers of dust blanket the terrain, Christensen said.
Opportunity’s landing site — thought to be an ancient seabed — is more wind-swept, so the landscape is far more exposed.
"It’s vastly more intriguing from a mineralogy standpoint,’’ Christensen said.
Suspense is building again among the university’s dozens of space researchers as the countdown to Opportunity’s landing draws near, said ASU geologist Ron Greeley, who heads one of NASA’s Mars science teams.
"We’re more excited and anxious than the first time,’’ he said, referring to the earlier Spirit landing.
Like then, some ASU researchers will be at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California with a few hundred other scientists and engineers, "waiting tensely for that first beep’’ from Opportunity to indicate a safe landing in progress, Greeley said.
Reports on the radio signals from the rover will be relayed via NASA’s cable TV channel to a gathering at ASU’s Mars facility in Tempe.
ASU President Michael Crow and other top university officials are to join researchers there. They hope to mark an occasion that has major potential for solidifying the school’s leading role in the nation’s space program, said spokesman James Hathaway.
A celebration is not assured, however. Landing a craft on Mars has proved to be risky business. More than a dozen probes or landers sent in the past 30 years by the United States and other nations have either failed to reach the planet, crashed in attempting to land or otherwise malfunctioned.
Besides getting the craft safely into Mars’ gravitational field and igniting retro rockets to slow its descent through the atmosphere, an array of parachutes and large air bags must deploy precisely to prevent disabling damage on impact.
If Opportunity and Spirit get going at full speed in addition to three orbiters — including Europe’s Mars Express orbiter — it will be a record number of crafts simultaneously collecting data on another planet, Greeley said.
"That will be a lot of information coming in. . . . We’ve never been able to look at (another) planet from so many directions all at once,’’ he said.