Reaching for the Stars
Seven years after the last successful Mars landing, the Mars rover Spirit renews Earth’s fascination with the Red Planet.
By Ed Reynolds
The sight of 3-D glasses on the faces of awestruck observers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory briefly lent a 1950s sci-fi touch to the 2004 Mars Rover headquarters. It had been seven years since a spacecraft had successfully landed on Mars, and the smiles on the faces of scientists, engineers, and reporters as they viewed a panoramic 3-D image from the Mars Rover Spirit encapsulated the excitement of America’s successful return to space.
Red Planet Fever: An artist’s conception of the Mars Rover Spirit on the planet’s surface. (click for larger version)
Landing on Mars is a supremely difficult task. In 40 years, only 3 of the 36 attempts have been successful. A pair of Viking craft landed in 1976, sending back the first photos of the planet’s surface. It would be 21 years before another mission achieved the same accomplishment: a 3-foot roving robot named Sojourner slowly rolled across the reddish-orange surface in 1997 after parachuting out of the Mars Pathfinder spaceship, spearheading a flurry of attempts by nations, including the United States, to duplicate the amazing feat. None were successful. Some crashed into the planet. Others simply flew right by, such as a 1999 NASA spacecraft whose landing was foiled because a programmer had earlier failed to switch from English to metric units of measurement. Several weeks ago, when it became obvious that it would not be able to land, a Japanese craft was jettisoned out of Martian orbit and on an eternal trip to nowhere. On Christmas Eve, the European Space Agency, a scientific conglomerate of 15 countries, tried to land the British Beagle 2 on Mars. The lander has yet to communicate with Earth and is presumed dead, though the vehicle that carried it on its seven-month journey continues to transmit data about the Martian environment. It was the European Space Agency’s first Mars attempt, made with a shoestring budget of $40 million. The NASA Spirit mission has a price tag of well over $200 million.
The ultimate objective of the rover Spirit is to search for signs of water in Mars’ past—the key to life as Earthlings know it. Polar ice caps presently exist on Mars, and scientists suspect that channels of warm running water may lie beneath the surface, which would perhaps allow some form of life to thrive. The six-wheeled Spirit robot is the size of a golf cart, and it’s equipped with a drill to bore into rocks, then to study them with a microscope and mineral analyzer. It takes at least 10 minutes for commands from Earth, traveling at the speed of light, to reach the Spirit. Therefore, the rover must be “smart enough” to make many of its own decisions, such as how to navigate around hazards that lie in its path. High-resolution stereo vision is employed by Spirit to survey the landscape, hence the reason for using 3-D vision. Infrared cameras locate minerals that could have formed after coming into contact with water at some point long ago. On January 24, an identical rover, Opportunity, is scheduled to land on the opposite side of the planet.
Considering how far we’ve come in the Space Age, it’s ironic that in the week before Christmas, on the 100th anniversary of the first engine-powered flight, experts could not get an exact replica of the Wright Brothers’ airplane off the ground. Two weeks earlier, the space probe Stardust not only beamed back to Earth the best photos ever taken of a comet, but also scooped up dust samples from the nucleus of the comet Wild 2. The probe will deliver the samples in 2006. In July, the U.S. spacecraft Cassini will complete its seven-year journey to set a lander on the surface of Titan, one of the large moons circling Saturn. Space exploration has not been this thrilling since Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. Appropriately, President Bush has expressed a desire to return to the lunar surface. So have the Chinese, who launched their first taikonaut (the Chinese version of an astronaut) into orbit in October 2003. (China reportedly covets the moon’s abundance of helium 3, a rare isotope that is used in nuclear reactors but is in short supply on Earth.)
What began as a Cold War showdown for interstellar supremacy in 1957 when the Soviet Union beat America into space, eventually evolved into a surprising spirit of cooperation. In the mid-1970s, the United States and Russia docked orbiting spaceships. It was the first crack in the Cold War ice between the two superpowers, leading the way to years of collaboration as cosmonauts and astronauts shared spaceships in a common goal to construct the International Space Station. Talk radio wackos currently warn that the U.S. must establish a foothold in outer space in order to claim a military advantage. It may come to that someday. But for the near future, the spirit of discovery should be the world’s primary reason for embarking on such daunting adventures as space exploration. There’s no telling what we might find. &