The NASA scientists maneuvering that remote-control rover around Mars got some of their training from a University of Iowa robotics expert. Geb Thomas, a U-of-I professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, has worked with NASA more than seven years and says the current mission is the most exciting yet. Thomas and five U-of-I engineering students spent several weeks during 2003 in the Arizona desert on a half-million dollar simulated Mars exploration project. Cameras were set up and NASA geologists looked at various rocks and other land features, then were taken out to the mock landing site to get a close-up look at the real things.He says they were surprised that some rocks had different shapes and colors than were shown on the images and the sense of scale was different too. Thomas says his team helped the scientists learn to better interpret the pictures from the mock-Martian surface.The video images were slightly distorted, making some rocks look smoother and rounder — a look more indicative of water-caused weathering.Thomas says he’s hopeful the current rover on Mars, called Spirit, will find signs of water, but he says NASA likely won’t be able to scientifically conclude there are signs of life as this mission is geared toward searching for water, not life.
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