The photos from Mars sent back to Earth by NASA's Spirit Rover are more interesting to Albert Chen than the casual observer.
Chen, professor of physics at Oklahoma Baptist University, has spent his summers doing research for NASA, most recently studying the Red Planet's dust. The Spirit Rover may or may not bring much light to bear on Chen's research, but the success will likely ignite momentum for the program and the research needed to one day send a manned flight to Mars.
"It's very good news," said Chen. "My research has been on the dust on Mars and the characteristics of the dust. Mars has a high concentration of dust. It is a different size and mass."
Chen has been working with NASA since 1996. Prior to that, he was a research scientist at Baylor University's Space Physics Laboratory. While at the Kennedy Space Center, Chen conducted the research on the dust that can cause problems of build-up on solar panels, as well as other dust-related hazards, including charges that can come from the particles.
"When the wind blows the dust, there can be a static charge that can be very troublesome," Chen said. "It tends to stick to the instruments."
NASA's Spirit Rover is starting to examine its new surroundings, revealing a vast flatland well suited to the robot's unprecedented mobility and scientific toolkit.
The rover's initial images excited scientists about the prospects of exploring the region after the roll-off.
The terrain looks different from any of the sites examined by NASA's three previous successful landers -- the two Vikings in 1976 and Mars Pathfinder in 1997.
Spirit arrived at Mars Jan. 3 after a seven-month journey. Its task is to spend the next three months exploring for clues in rocks and soil about whether the past environment at this part of Mars was ever watery and suitable to sustain life.
Spirit's twin Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, will reach its landing site on the opposite side of Mars on Jan. 25 to begin a similar examination of a site on the opposite side of the planet from Gusev Crater.
"The second rover should be there in a week or so," Chen said. "It would be exciting if it found any form of life or indication of water under ground."
Chen is optimistic that a manned-flight would someday mission to Mars, but said a lot of work still has to be done to ensure success, including the human element of spending more than a year in a confined space.
Chen will return to work for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center this summer under another research grant. He will continue to study the dust, trying to determine more of its characteristics, hoping to be one of the men behind the scenes that leads to improved space exploration.