A group of small, unnamed craters in the martian southern
hemisphere is the first site captured by a group of middle school
students who are operating the camera system onboard NASA’s Mars
Odyssey spacecraft this week.

The acquisition of the image marks the beginning of the Mars
Student Imaging Project, a science education program funded by NASA
and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and operated
by the Mars Education Program at Arizona State University, Tempe.
The project gives thousands of fifth to 12th grade students the
opportunity to do real-life planetary exploration and to study
planetary geology using Odyssey’s visible-light camera.

“It was incredible to watch their faces. They really
understood and appreciated what they were doing and that they were
the first people on Earth to see that place on Mars,” said Dr.
Philip Christensen, the camera system’s principal investigator at
Arizona State University. The Mars student imaging project began
with Christensen, who wants to give students a chance to
participate in the fun of exploration.

The group of 11 sixth and seventh graders, visiting Arizona
State from the Olympia School District in central Illinois, watched
as commands were sent to the camera onboard Odyssey from the
university’s planetary imaging facility this week. Though imaging
scientists hit the keys, the commands that told the camera to take
a visible light picture at a precise set of martian coordinates
were directed by the students, who chose the study site.

Later, the students were watching as data came back from the
spacecraft and appeared as a raw image on the screen in the
facility’s auditorium. The image, showing a set of smaller, unnamed
craters at eight degrees south martian longitude, 337 degrees west
latitude, is the most detailed image ever obtained of the features
in that area. (To see and download the image, go to
http://clasdean.la.asu.edu/news/images/msipix/ )

“It’s been great — so great,” said an enthusiastic Lisa
Behrens, age 13, shortly after the image was downloaded. “When the
image came up, we had been waiting for that for like three, four
months, and it was like, finally! And we hit the target right on!
We can’t wait to analyze it!”

After the data were received, the students processed the image
and tried their hands at finding new information in the martian
geography it revealed. The main crater in the image is apparently a
relatively young crater with sharp sides.

The students got more from the visit than a new picture
of Mars. They also got the chance to develop a new enthusiasm
for science.

“They just don’t want to stop with this,” commented
Olympia coordinator Fred Shears, who accompanied his students
on the trip. “They want to keep studying Mars long-term. I was
surprised by them this morning when they wanted to come in
early to work on Powerpoint presentations of their research —
how often do you see that?”

“The student imaging program is a cool idea — something
that I always thought would be really neat to do when I was a
kid,” said Christensen. “We talked to a lot of teachers, and
one of the things that really excited them was the thought
that ‘Wow, my class could actually be actively involved in
exploring Mars rather than just standing on the outside

“I think this is great because this is a once in a
lifetime opportunity and we can be like really old and we’ll
still have this to look back on,” said Jessica Lloyd, age 13.
“It’s great being able to find our own crater on Mars and to
be able to analyze it. It might help us learn about the
materials that Mars is made of. That would be so cool!”

JPL manages the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission for NASA’s
Office of Space Science in Washington, D.C. Principal
investigators at Arizona State University in Tempe, the
University of Arizona in Tucson and the Johnson Space Center,
Houston, operate the science instruments. Additional science
investigators are located at the Russian Space Research
Institute and Los Alamos National Laboratories, New Mexico.
Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, is the prime contractor
for the project, and developed and built the orbiter. Mission
operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and from
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in

For information about participating in the Mars Student
Imaging Program go to: http://msip.asu.edu .

Additional information about the 2001 Mars Odyssey
mission is at: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/odyssey/ .