SETI bioastro: Final days before Spirit rover lands on Mars

Date: Wed Dec 31 2003 - 09:04:04 PST

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    Cornell-made mars probes near their final destination

    By:Larry KlaesDecember 30, 2003

    By the end of this week, should a number of factors work as planned, the planet Mars will be host to only the second successful robot rover on its alien surface. This will be no mean feat, as many of the probes that have been sent to the Red Planet since 1960 have failed, including two of the four spacecraft that were most recently part of an international armada to the fourth world from the Sun.

    Almost There
    Carrying a sophisticated science package named Alpha and designed by the Space Sciences Department of Cornell University, the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) named Spirit will land in Gusev Crater on Jan. 3, 2004, after a seven-month voyage through interplanetary space. Its twin rover, Opportunity, will touch down over six thousand miles away on Meridiani Planum on Jan. 25.
          The two rovers are "doing great," says MER Principal Investigator Steven Squyres. The six-wheeled explorers are in good mechanical health and their final flight software is ready for the big days ahead.
          As for the human counterparts of the MER team, they are resting and carrying on with their regular routines.
          "We are getting our lives in order so that we can participate in round-the-clock operations for months," says Squyres. The last six months were spent "earning their Martian drivers' licenses" as they practiced running two identical rovers across simulated Mars terrain on Earth.
          Once the rovers are on the Red Planet, every day they can return scientific data is vital to the success of the mission, which is expected to last at least three months.
          Scientists hope that the "robot field geologists" will discover evidence for past liquid water on Mars in its rocks. The presence of flowing water would show that the ancient planetary environment could have been "friendly" to some forms of native life.
          With Great Rewards Come Great Risks
    Despite decades of sending probes into space, exploring other worlds is still a difficult endeavor.
          In early December, Japan's first Mars probe, Nozomi (Hope) was unable to orbit the Red Planet as planned. And while the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express probe did achieve orbit, the Beagle 2 lander it carried has remained silent since its supposed touch down on the Martian surface Christmas Day.
          Squyres said he has an "incredible amount of sympathy" for his fellow Mars explorers and knows something of how they feel.
          Squyres worked on several other projects in the late 1990s that did not achieve their goals at the Red Planet.
          Squyres is confident that the rovers will soon be roaming across the red deserts of Mars looking for signs of past water. Already the probes survived the largest solar flares in recorded history last October. A recent dust storm on the planet that threatened to build into a global event has already begun to fade and will not affect the Gusev Crater landing site.
          Still, Squyres admits that after years of preparing for this event, it is all coming down to "six minutes of terror" this coming Saturday, as Spirit makes a rough landing using a series of parachutes, retrorockets, and air bags, bouncing its way to a stop in what may be an ancient lakebed and a key to Mars' past.
          On Sunday, Jan. 4, PBS television will be broadcasting a special NOVA program titled "Mars: Dead or Alive" airing at 8 p.m. ET.
          Among the highlights to be found there and on the companion Web site at are details of the rover mission, an interview with Dr. Squyres, and the first reports from Spirit on the Red Planet.
    Larry Klaes

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