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Meet: Peter Smith

Camera Designer and Spectroscopist
Lunar and Planetary Lab, University of Arizona




I work on many projects at the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona, but right now my main focus is sending cameras to Mars. I designed the Imager for Mars Pathfinder (IMP), which will land on Mars this summer on July 4! The camera will not just take one kind of picture. It contains 24 filters that will allow it to examine the geology, the dusty atmosphere and even the weather on Mars. Some of the pictures of Mars will even be stereoscopic, or "3-D," because this enables us to calculate the distance to objects in the picture. I am also working on another Mars camera, the Surface Stereo Imager (SSI), which will be launched in January 1999.

How I Got Here

While majoring in physics at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 60s, I became fascinated by optics. Optics is the study of light and its interaction with matter. Have you ever wondered when you turn on the electricity to a light bulb, where the light comes from and where does it go when you switch off the light?

I studied the way light is separated into its composite colors and become a spectroscopist. I got a job in Hawaii helping to build an instrument to study ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Ultraviolet light does not penetrate to the Earth's surface, so we flew the instrument on an Aerobee rocket outside the Earth's atmosphere. Each launch took place in White Sands, New Mexico, and a mission lasted less than 20 minutes. We would find the broken shell of the spacecraft 50 miles away in a remote area of the New Mexico desert near the White Sands monument. Then we would recover the special film from the instrument to obtain our spectral data for future analysis. Although we had high hopes of learning some new secret about the energy sources powering the structures in the sun's outer layers, in fact, after many years of effort, little knowledge was gained. These secrets are just now being discovered, 25 years later, from the SOHO mission now in orbit monitoring the sun's atmosphere.

I left Hawaii in 1975 and started graduate school at the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona, back in my home town of Tucson. My first job, chosen for me at random, was to process the images just obtained by the Pioneer mission to Jupiter and the Galilean moons. I still work with planetary images today, 22 years later.

With a Master's degree in optics I started at the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona in 1978. My first project was to calibrate a solar flux radiometer soon to be flown to the surface of Venus as part of the Pioneer Venus mission. With the success of the instrument and the first-hand experience learned with Dr. Martin Tomasko, the principal investigator for that mission, I was hooked on space. The Pioneer missions to Saturn and Titan were followed with long studies to try to understand the atmospheric properties of these objects. The results of these studies explained the cloud layering on Venus and the outer planets and taught us about the dust and ice particles the clouds are made of.

Later I helped Dr. Tomasko develop a descent imager to be parachuted to the surface of Titan as part of the Cassini mission. Starting in 1989 we received funding to start construction. The magnitude of the effort was immense, requiring the hiring and managing of Martin Marietta Astronautics in Denver and collaborations with the Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy in Germany and the Paris Observatory. Part of the glamour of astronomy is the travel to different places and the interesting people that one meets.

In response to a NASA announcement to fund a camera for a new mission to Mars I designed a simple camera system using many of the parts of the descent imager. This camera became known as the IMP.