Washington, May 23 : NASA's Phoenix Mars lander is will have onboard two special tools to give scientists their best look at the Red Planet's true colors, which would help scientists to determine what makes up the terrain of Mars.
About the size of hockey pucks, the two tools, called color-calibration targets, are covered with color chips, designed by University of Central Florida (UCF) Physics and Astronomy Professor Dan Britt and two students.
When Phoenix's camera takes pictures of the terrain, it will also capture the calibration targets, allowing scientists to compare the colors in each photo and determine the actual hues.
Knowing the true colors allows spectroscopists, such as Britt, to determine what makes up the planet's terrain.
The colors are one reason NASA says that liquid water once existed on Mars, and they help geologists analyze layers of rock deposited over thousands of years.
"Mars is a dusty place with a harsh climate," said Britt, who has worked on calibration targets for four other Mars missions. "Over time, dust covered the previous targets and color chips, making it nearly impossible to decipher accurate hues," he added.
So, for the first time, calibration targets on the Phoenix Mars have built-in magnets to repel the dust.
Each magnet is about 100 times stronger than a refrigerator magnet and should keep the targets "clean" while the lander samples soils in the Martian arctic region.
While Britt created the color chips, scientists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark designed the targets and magnets.
With past color-calibration targets, Britt and his team -- which has included a University of Florida professor and UCF students - have helped scientists learn more about Mars' surface, which Britt says is actually yellowish-brown and not red.
Britt started creating the color chips for Phoenix about three years ago in his lab at UCF.
Made of rubbery silicon and paint pigments, the color chips were embedded in an aluminum casting and tested under extreme conditions - intense ultraviolet light and depressurization - before they left Earth last year.
Also new on several of the Phoenix lander's color targets is a special metal-infused coating created by Britt and UF chemistry professor Randolph S. Duran.
"The coating also should help keep away the dust," said Britt.
The Phoenix Mars lander is expected to touch down on the surface of Mars on May 25, 2008.