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One Last Thing...

Out of This World Connections

The Mars Spirit rover spends winter on “Low Ridge”

by Tracey Leibach

“Low Ridge,” located in the southern hemisphere of Mars, is the winter home of the Spirit rover.

You never know where you'll run into a Rensselaer connection... even in outer space.

The enduring Mars Exploration Rovers, created with the help of more than a dozen Rensselaer graduates, are still rolling along on the Mars surface, nearly three years after landing on the red planet in January 2004. The Spirit rover is spending the Martian winter on “Low Ridge” in the southern hemisphere. The rover team has named Low Ridge after space pioneer George M. Low ’48, Rensselaer’s 14th president and a member of the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame.

According to Jim Bell, lead scientist for the rovers’ panoramic cameras, “Low was a leading figure within NASA from the inception of the agency, and served as deputy administrator from 1969 to 1975. He is perhaps best known for his leadership of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, where he was responsible for the successful redesign of the Apollo spacecraft following the Apollo 1 fire in which three astronauts perished.”

NASA Administrator George Low ’48 (far left in group and at blackboard) oversaw the Apollo Spacecraft Program.

“We decided quite some time ago to name the major topographic features after some of the major pioneers of the space age,” says Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers and professor of astronomy, Cornell University. “There’s a Von Braun Hill and a Goddard Hill. Three big outcrops are named after Oberth, Korolev, and Tsiolkovsky. Another outcrop is named after Max Faget. George Low was an obvious person to be included on this list. I’ve always felt that he was one of the most important contributors to the process of putting humans safely on the Moon, so it wasn’t difficult to conclude that he should be among the pioneers we chose to name features after.”

The rovers have worked under harsh Martian conditions much longer than expected; their initial primary missions were to last three months. The rovers rely on solar power. To keep producing enough electricity to run overnight heaters that protect vital electronics, Spirit’s solar panels must be tilted toward the winter sun.

“Low Ridge is ideal for us in two respects: It’s steep, but it’s not tall,” says Squyres. “What that means is that by climbing just a short distance, we were able to place the rover on a steep slope that faces north. Spirit is in the southern hemisphere of Mars, which means that during the winter the sun is low in the northern sky. By tilting the solar arrays toward the north — and hence toward the sun — the rover can generate more power, enabling it to survive the very harsh Martian winter.”

Squyres says that Low Ridge has “turned out to be an exceptionally interesting place. Among the surprising findings is that we have identified two iron meteorites close to the rover. Each is roughly the size of a basketball, and they’re so close to one another that it’s plausible they were once both part of the same object. It’s not surprising, of course, that there are meteorites on Mars, but they’re not easy things to find. We were very fortunate here.”

“Having a feature on Mars named after George Low is a great honor and is sincerely appreciated by the family,” says Mark Low ’78, one of George Low’s sons. “The remarkable achievement of the Mars Exploration Rovers, and especially the fact that RPI grads have made significant contributions to the program, would certainly have made him proud. The accomplishment exemplifies everything that he envisaged for science, technology, quality, education, and management coming together in pursuit of far-reaching goals.

“I believe that he would say that also exemplifies the ‘Spirit’ of RPI, and the impact that the Institute and its graduates are making on the world — and beyond.”

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