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University of Arizona looks beyond Mars mission

  • Story Highlights
  • University of Arizona is the first university to lead a mission to another planet
  • School officials say Mars mission is the first of several more to outer space
  • Such exposure for the school is hard to come by, official says
  • University also plans to compete for $30 million Google Lunar X Prize
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By Alex Dalenberg
Special to CNN
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Alex Dalenberg is a reporter for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the leading news source for the University of Arizona. This article was brought to CNN.com by UWIRE, the leading provider of student-generated content. UWIRE aims to identify and promote the brightest young content creators and deliver their work to a larger audience via professional media partners such as CNN.com. Visit UWIRE.com to learn more.

(UWIRE) -- The fun won't be over for the University of Arizona when batteries for the school-led Phoenix Mars Lander fail and its computers freeze up in the Martian arctic after its three-month mission ends.

With the permanent Science Operations Center now built in Tucson, Arizona -- and the recognition that comes as the first university to lead a mission to another planet -- school officials say the Phoenix is just beginning to pay dividends.

The long-term impact of the mission will be to draw dollars, talent and fame to the university as well as to make it a permanent player in space exploration.

Peter Smith, who leads the Phoenix team as its principal investigator, summed up the mission's importance to the University of Arizona in one word: "prestige."

"The university is trying to become a world-class research facility," Smith said. "Having a mission like this -- returning some really impressive science about an unexplored region of Mars -- that puts us on the map."

While the university works to build its reputation, the Science Operations Center where university scientists control the mission is literally on the map -- permanently. The center gives the university a platform to lead future missions, said Michael Drake, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Video Watch as some early findings from the Mars lander trickle back to Earth »

Phoenix is not meant to be a one-shot deal but the first of several proposed university missions to outer space. With the experience and recognition that comes from leading a Mars mission and the facilities to lead future ones, the school is eligible to win future contracts for space exploration. That's a boon to the entire university community, Drake said.

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"Most people think, 'Oh, you've spent $420 million and just dumped it on Mars.' Well, that's not the way it gets spent," he said. "It gets spent here on Earth, and $50 million or so was spent here in Arizona, most of it here in Tucson. That really translates into a huge economic boost for the city, the county and the state."

The mission also enhances the overall reputation of the university, bringing attention to other great things happening on campus, Drake said.

"There's an old expression: A rising tide raises all ships," he said.

The initial landing celebration brought in reporters from around the world.

"You know, Tucson's kind of isolated, if you haven't noticed. We're not a hub," Smith said. "People who have never heard of the University of Arizona now see it in the news."

Every visiting press member received a visitor's guide and ample opportunities to tour university facilities. The mission also has partnered the school with universities in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland as well as the Canadian Space Agency.

That kind of exposure is hard to come by, Drake said.

"Bowl games, they usually have an ad about the two schools," he said. "This kind of coverage just dwarfs that one-time-only coverage."

President Robert Shelton said he gets asked about the mission "all the time."

"It shows that the university knows how to attract people and support programs that are the very best," he said. "While you can't be number one at everything, it's important that you know how to do it in select areas."

And the university hopes to be the leader in space exploration for some time. University scientists already have submitted a proposal to lead NASA's OSIRIS mission. That project will seek to return samples of organic materials from an asteroid to help scientists understand how the building blocks for life may have been seeded on the early Earth.

The university also is planning to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million international competition to land a robot on the moon, travel 500 meters across the surface and return at least one gigabyte of high-definition television information to Earth.

Both missions would be controlled from the university's Science Operations Center, Drake said.

Continued missions such as these would be a huge return on the state's investment in the university, he said.

Each year, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory spends about $3 million in state money as opposed to $30 million from competitive, peer-reviewed contracts and grants, he added.

"That's stuff that we win because of the capabilities of the faculty," Drake said. "That is a 10-to-1 return on the investment. I wish I could find a 10-to-1 return on my investment."

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Phoenix will keep reaping rewards for the university, because it makes the school competitive in the space game for the long haul, he said.

"We've shown that we can operate a spacecraft on the surface of Mars," Drake said. "We will be, for probably a long time, the only university that has that capability in the world."

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