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Explorer funded planet lab

ST. LOUIS — Known for his record-setting accomplishments on and above the earth, adventurer Steve Fossett’s legacy will include work to better understand mysteries of the solar system.

The self-made businessman, known for setting balloon, jet and glider records, was declared legally dead by an Illinois judge in February, about five months after his small plane vanished after he took off from a Nevada airstrip on a pleasure flight. He was 63.

A memorial service to remember the late explorer will be held today at Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his MBA in 1968. But his contributions to the school continue.

Fossett donated half of the money for a new, roughly $1 million lab at the school which is allowing scientists to turn photographs from Mars and other planets into images that appear three-dimensional, allowing them to go on virtual planetary tours.

“We’d like to be able to walk around on Mars ourselves. That’s what field geologists do, but we can’t,” said Ray Arvidson, chairman of the university’s department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

But in the Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration, researchers can don special glasses, step into a chamber with a white floor and surrounded by three white screens, and direct a computerized system to project planetary images around and beneath them.

In this environment, it appears as though they’re standing on the surface of certain parts of Mars. They can also use a wireless joystick to change the view, so it then appears they’re hovering over a section of the planet.

With the use of handheld electronic tablets, they’re working to link the images with other data gathered on Mars about the composition of rocks. The lab improves their ability to visualize Mars, to get a better understanding of how rocks on the planet are incorporated into the land and how they were formed.

“That tells you how the planet evolved, how it was made,” said Arvidson.

Arvidson is the deputy principal investigator of a NASA mission involving the solar-powered rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have been taking photographs and gathering data on Mars since 2004, leading to geologic evidence that water flowed at or near the surface of Mars long ago.

The lab’s technology will also be used to help pick the safest paths for the rovers to continue gathering information on Mars, Arvidson said.

Fossett’s major support for the lab was announced in 2006, just one of the contributions he and his wife, Peggy, made to the school over the years.

The lab was completed in November and checked out through March to make sure it was working properly, Arvidson said.

Arvidson met Fossett in the 1990s, when Washington University’s chancellor asked Arvidson if he could assist Fossett with his operations for his early attempts to fly a balloon around the world.

Washington University served as mission control on several of Fossett’s balloon attempts. Fossett ultimately became the first person to fly around the world alone in a nonstop balloon flight in 2002.

He remained interested in the work of Washington University professors and students, and was supportive when he talked to Arvidson about imaging, visualization, and how the lab could help with research. NASA also funded the project, Arvidson said. “It augments our ability to do our scientific job,” he said of the lab.

Born in Jackson, Tenn., Fossett was an undergraduate at Stanford University before earning his master’s degree from Washington University. Fossett went to Chicago to work in investments and founded his own firm, Marathon Securities. He served as a Washington University trustee beginning in 1995, and maintained close ties to the school.

While breaking flight records brought him his greatest fame, Fossett also climbed mountains, swam the English Channel and completed the Iditarod dog sled race.

Fossett did not have a chance to see the new lab in operation, though his wife planned to visit it today, Arvidson said.

Washington University freshman Kirsten Siebach, 19, of Oakton, Va., is a Fossett Fellow, one of four students — one in each undergraduate year — who receive funds to help their research.

She never met Fossett but planned to attend his memorial service at the school. She said the new lab allows a better way to visualize Mars, helping with her student research.

And the fellowship has given her travel and study opportunities she wouldn’t have had otherwise. “His contributions have made a huge difference in my experience here. I definitely want to show my gratitude,” she said.

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On the Net:

Washington University: http://www.wustl.edu/

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