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Next Stop: Mars

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Fall 1999
Next Stop: Mars
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When the Mars Polar Lander touches down on the surface of the Red Planet in December, Westwood will be at the center of a historic interplanetary adventure, the first in which a team of university scientists will be at the helm of the onboard experiments

By Dan Gordon '85

As you read these pages, take a moment to glance skyward and consider a small craft, packed with sensitive instruments designed and operated by UCLA scientists, hurtling at nearly 10 miles per second through the infinite void of space en route to a historic landing on Mars.

Entering the home stretch of an 11-month sojourn that began Jan. 3 atop the nose of a Delta II booster, the Mars Polar Lander already has logged more than 120 million frequent-flyer miles. It is now a mere 17 million miles from its rendezvous with the fourth rock from the sun, which, if you were a stowaway onboard the spacecraft and in possession of a good telescope, would appear as a crescent in the distance.

As the lander speeds through the dark serenity of space, a much different scene is unfolding on the home world, in Westwood, the heart of the science project for the first-ever landing in the south polar region of Mars. Here, in the UCLA Science and Technology Research Building near the intersection of Gayley and Weyburn avenues, members of the UCLA-led team in charge of the scientific payload on board the lander the Mars Volatiles and Climate Surveyor (MVACS) are engaged in what might be described as a state of controlled chaos. Between now and the lander's scheduled touchdown on Dec. 3, they are holding round-the-clock operational readiness tests and conducting daily health checks of the instruments aboard the craft. Once it has landed, within the southern region at about 76 degrees south latitude and about 190 degrees west longitude, the real work begins as they execute the scientific experiments designed to pry loose the secrets of the Red Planet for an eager and curious audience.

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