While many of us are gazing up at the Red Planet to see it in its best position this month, NASA has been gazing at it much longer and with a great deal more intent. Of all the projects NASA has for exploring the cosmos, none is as rigorous as the plans to get to know the red planet like we ve never known it before.
NASA has three basic goals for studying Mars. The first is to search for signs of life, whether in the past or present. There has been much excitement over this topic since scientists discovered what they believe are microbe fossils in a meteorite which came from Mars. The second goal is to understand long term climate change on Mars. Evidence has shown that at one time there was a great deal of water on Mars, but something happened to it. The riverbeds have long since dried up but astronomers have no idea why. The third goal is to study the planet s natural resources and how they might prove useful for future explorations.
NASA has planned a whole series of trips to Mars, roughly every two years when the planets are in a favorable position for flight.
The first flights were launched in 1996, Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor. Who can forget the excitement we all shared watching the Mars Rover returning images from the Martian surface! The Global Surveyor is working perfectly, and has begun mapping Mars at a very small resolution.
The next mission is already on its way to Mars. Called the Mars Surveyor 98 project, it consists of Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) and Mars Polar Lander (MPL.) Japan has also launched a spacecraft bound for Mars called Nozomi.
MCO will arrive at Mars in September 23, 1999. It s objective is to study water distribution on the planet and in the thin atmosphere. An imager with a resolution of 40 meters will take pictures of the surface and daily global images of the Martian atmosphere. MPL is scheduled to arrive at Mars on December 3, 1999. Just before its arrival, it will jettison two instrument packages. These are probes which will crash headlong into the Martian surface and penetrate to a depth of about 6 feet in a search for water ice.
The actual polar lander will touch down at the edge of Mars southern polar cap. The polar caps have long been a source of scientific intruige. The northern cap contains both water and frozen carbon dioxide, while the southern cap appears to be only frozen carbon dioxide. The southern cap is also smaller, but deeper. The polar lander does not have a rover, but it does have a robotics arm. The arm will dig up to a few feet into the Martian soil. The arm will gather soil samples and then place them into small ovens where they will be heated to reveal the concentrations of water and carbon dioxide. The lander also has an electronic ear, to hear the whistling of Martian winds or the sounds of the arm digging into the soil.
The Japanese mission encountered engine problems and instead of landing this year, the spacecraft will not arrive at Mars until 2004. Future NASA missions include additional landers and returning soil and rock samples in 2008.
So when will humans set foot on the red planet? If all goes well and the future missions are a success, NASA is estimating that humans will set foot on Mars in 2014. Meanwhile we will allow our landers to be our eyes and ears.
Copyright © 1999 Kathy Miles and Charles F. Peters II