Potential hazards that the soil and dust of Mars might pose to human explorers will be studied by an instrument recently selected by NASA to fly on the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander spacecraft.

The Mars Environmental Compatibility Assessment (MECA) was one of two experiments chosen by NASA this month from a field of 39 proposals for instruments to perform studies that will benefit eventual human exploration of the red planet.

MECA will analyze the dust and soil of Mars to investigate potential hazards to human explorers. The instrument will examine dust and soil using an optical microscope provided by the Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy in Germany and the University of Arizona.

In the experiment, soil will be mixed with water carried aboard the spacecraft to investigate such topics as the acidity or alkalinity of the soil; potential for oxidation; electrical conductivity; and the presence of potentially toxic dissolved ions on Mars. The experiment will also monitor the charge buildup on the instrument's digging arm to learn about electrostatic buildup.

The 2001 Mars missions represent the first step in an agency initiative to fly experiments supporting NASA's Human Exploration and Development of Space program on robotic exploration missions carried out by NASA's Office of Space Science. The 2001 lander is scheduled to launch in April 2001, while its companion orbiter spacecraft is set to launch approximately one month earlier.

NASA's Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications sponsors MECA. Dr. Michael Hecht of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is project manager, Dr. Thomas Meloy of West Virginia University is principal investigator and John Marshall of NASA's Ames Research Laboratory is deputy principal investigator.

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA.

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