Two students and a teacher from a small Nevada school will be getting a look at some tiny fragments of the planet Mars next year.
Silver Stage High School in Silver Springs, 36 miles east of Carson City, has been chosen to take part in a NASA education program involving the space agency's unmanned twin rover mission to Mars in January.
"We were stunned when we learned we were chosen," said technology teacher Jim Berryman-Shafer.
Juniors Shannon Thiessen and Matt Burton are representing the school in the Athena Student Intern Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The students will have a chance to examine data collected by the Mars rovers and to interact with NASA scientists.
"For students here to have an opportunity to talk to world-class scientists is awesome," Berryman-Shafer said.
The three are scheduled to go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the second week of February to join teacher-student teams from a dozen other schools in examining images of rocks taken from the rovers.
Burton said that data collection equipment on the golf cart-sized rovers includes a rock abrasion tool designed to scrape off small pieces for analysis.
The main purpose of the mission, said Berryman-Shafer, is to look for signs indicating whether Mars was previously capable of supporting life.
"This is all very exciting. We're a little school out in the middle of nowhere but we got selected, Thiessen said. "We're very happy and very lucky."
Berryman-Shafer learned of the national program about a year ago while looking for robotic information on the Web. After the 350-student school was chosen from 150 national applicants, Berryman-Shafer said that he faced the challenge of naming two student representatives.
The school's parent-teacher association, along with the booster club and Lyon County Education Association, helped raise funds so he and the two students could visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in October for a practice session. February's trip is being paid for by a NASA grant.
The first six-wheeled robot, Spirit, is scheduled to land Jan. 3 and the other, Opportunity, Jan. 24.
Berryman-Shafer said only 15 of the 42 missions to Mars launched by the United States and Russia - most of them orbiters - have been successful. NASA's last two unmanned landing attempts in 1999 resulted in failure.
Berryman-Shafer and his students said they're keeping their fingers crossed.
"But even if everything doesn't work out as planned, it's already been a great experience," Burton said.
On the Net:
NASA's Mars Web site: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov
Silver Stage High School's Athena program Web site: http://sshs.lyon.k12.nv.us/p/athena.htm