ONCE MORE to — – – - - - - MARS.

O NE OF THE DEFINING EPISODES IN THE PUBLIC EMBRACE OF THE INTERNET WAS THE 1997 PATHFINDER MISSION TO MARS. Sojourner, the six-wheeled rover deployed by the Pathfinder lander, was as the “little robot that could” After Pathfinder shed the air bags that had softened the landing, Sojourner crept down a ramp to the martian surface, shook out its solar panel, and opened up its electronic eyes. Then, on command from radio signals that took eleven inintmtes to make the transit, Sojourner motored up to big rocks, prohed them with its onhoard instruments, and, most important, sent picttircs of its out-of--this-world surroundings back to Earth. Pathfinder became the target of what was, at the time, the biggest “hit blizzard” in Web history. Millions logged on. Television came of age With wars, assassinations, and political conventions; the Internet came of age with a visit to Mars.

This January, 2004, NASA is doing its long-awaited encore: landing two new rover missions, Spirit and Opportunity, on opposite sides of the Red Planet. But Spirit and Opportunity are only part of the space armada scheduled to take part in this ‘winter’s unprecedented martian exploratory extravaganza. Mars Express launched by the European Space Agency, will reach Mars on Christmas day (Mars Express carries its lander, Beagle 2). Japan’s Nozomi spacecraft will reach Mars in January also, As they arrive, all four spacecraft will find Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor already orbiting the planet. And once again, you can log on to the Internet, as Robert Anderson describes in his “nature.net” column “Mars on My Mind.”

O ne of the many extraordinary things I learned from Michael Carr’s splendid previexv of the scientific purpose of the rover missions, “What Became of the Water on Mars?” (page 32), is the critical role of a hot, roiling iron core to the “health” of a planet. The core of Mars cooled billions of years ago, and so the planet is magnetically dead. With a map and a compass to find your way around, you could just as well throw away the compass.

But surely that’s a trivial price to pay for a planet—size piece of real estate. In fact, though, as Cart explains, one result of the loss of martian magnetism was the slow attenuation of its atmosphere. On Earth, the atmosphere and the magnetosphere deflect the charged particles that stream in from the Sun at a million miles an hour: the solar wind. But on Mars, the thin atmosphere and the loss of magnetism leave the surface exposed to the full brunt of the solar wind. Living on the martian sur-face would be like living inside an oversize television picture tube—except that you would be part of the screen, and charged particles would be raining down on your head. Large molecules such as proteins and DNA don’t do well tinder heavy ion bombardnient . In short, without a good lead umbrella, living on Mars would be cancer city. If you think Mars might offer a second chance for a species that fouls its own nest on Earth, think again.

                                                                                                      ----Peter Brown


December 2003. (Pg. 6)

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