Friday, November 14, 2003

Mars Attack



image from http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mer/gallery/spacecraft/browse/rover1_br.jpg

Dear Kari:

As someone who is astronomy astute, I'm sure you know there are many spacecraft on their way to Mars because of the recent close approach. Interestingly enough, our first posts when we started TTC were about that Mars opposition event and our love of astronomy. Thus, I figure you and our readership might enjoy hearing from somebody in the trenches of the great scientific spacecraft invasion of Mars that is going on right now.

I'm pleased to welcome to our blog space, a real life rocket scientist, my friend Robby. What follows is a little dialog we had about what is happening out there in outer space near Mars.

TTC: Which Mars spacecraft is your project group involved with?

R: I'm in JPL's Instrument Structures & Dynamics group, and we work primarily with smaller piece-part analyses. It's not a hard and fast division, but there's a sister group for doing the larger spacecraft-level assembly analyses. Together, we do all the structural analysis for whatever projects JPL is working on. Personally, I was involved with the Mars Exploration Rovers up until last fall. MER launched this spring/summer, and will land on Mars in January.

Currently, I've been working on an instrument for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, set to launch in 2005. Mars Climate Sounder is a camera for doing atmospheric measurements while MRO orbits the planet.

TTC: How many other spacecraft are heading towards Mars now?

R: Mars will be a very busy place in the coming months. JPL already has two spacecraft there, Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey. Along with the January arrival of Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers, the European Space Agency has a mission called Mars Express, with a British-led rover called Beagle 2, which should land on Christmas Day. Finally, after a very roundabout flight, Japan's Nozomi spacecraft should arrive at Mars in January as well. However, it has had problems and they are worried it may crash.

Both ESA and NASDA will be using NASA's Deep Space Network for some of the communication with their probes, and the DSN will be very busy. MGS and Odyssey will be used as relays.

JPL has a great page showing computer simulations of the current positions of all the Mars spacecraft. The reason that so many are arriving at about the same time is that the orbits of the Earth and Mars bring them close to each other every 26 months. That's why JPL has had missions in 2001, 2003, 2005, and likely for 2007.

TTC: Wow! There are SIX missions of which three will actually place something on the surface. I'm sure the missions have objectives in atmospheric science and mineralogy/geology. But I suspect the subject of most interest to the general public is life on Mars. What do you think about the likelihood of finding life on Mars or evidence of past life on Mars?

R: Gee, I'm just an engineer, not a scientist! NASA has decided to concentrate on finding water on Mars, aside from the frozen polar caps, thinking that any Martian life is most likely to be found in, or near, water. The atmospheric pressure and lower temperatures mean liquid water can't exist on the surface, but it could be buried somewhere. Science Online just ran a good article about it. Figuring out whether there is life on Mars is trickier than you might expect because micro-organisms from Earth might survive the trip to Mars as discussed in this blog post. I like to think that the good Lord would not waste all that red real estate, and that some cool microbiology is going on there.

TTC: We will be sure to check back with you again for updates! Thanks for filling us in on what is going on out there and keep up the good work.

If you are interested in keeping up-to-date on the Mars exploration, check out the various links Robby mentioned and here are a few more for you to bookmark.

Yahoo! News Mars Exploration category
NASA-JPL page devoted to Mars projects
The Planetary Society's Mars Exploration page
JPL Online gift shop

To mars and beyond,
Rene

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