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Next Stop: Mars

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Fall 1999
Next Stop: Mars
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Earthlings have, after all, always been captivated by Mars, whether it's science fiction or science fact. In 1997, millions tuned in to watch the off-road escapades of the Sojourner Rover, delivered to the surface aboard Pathfinder, as it broadcast the first surface-level pictures of the planet in more than two decades. But that was primarily an engineering experiment, designed to test technologies such as landing airbags and rovers planned for use on subsequent missions. This current mission, Mars Surveyor '98 (which includes the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter), is science driven and picks up where the 1976 Viking missions left off, probing our nearest planetary neighbor for clues to its past, present and future.

And for the first time on a space mission of this scale, NASA has put an academic at the helm of the design and operation of a group of scientific instruments aboard the spacecraft. David Paige, associate professor of planetary science, is in charge of the science package that will return data on the Martian atmosphere, climate, meteorology and surface volatiles the ice, frozen carbon dioxide and liquid water whose distribution and behavior over time can provide a window into a planet's history. Among the most intriguing questions Paige and his team hope to open a window on is how a planet that was once warmer and wetter evolved to its current cold, dry state, and whether Mars' past water-rich climate could have supported life. And in the longer view, NASA hopes to learn whether the volatiles have the potential to be used as a resource by future human inhabitants.

Sitting in Paige's scattershot office, the boyish, unassuming scientist glances at his upcoming calendar. "No week or month is like the one before," he marvels. "It's certainly not your standard academic life."

Nothing is standard about the role Paige and UCLA are playing on this mission. After opening the process to competitive bidding, NASA in 1995 assigned Paige the task of creating and operating the MVACS integrated payload. The project, which includes major participation from the University of Arizona, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed Martin and institutions in Germany, Denmark, Russia and Finland, fits with NASA's resolve to carry out better, faster and cheaper space missions. The combined initial planning cost for the two Mars Surveyor '98 missions the orbiter was launched a month ahead of the lander is $193 million, or $72 million less than the development cost of the Mars Pathfinder lander mission alone. Paige established the integrated payload concept, in which the individual instruments work together synergistically, with these cost limitations in mind, and the payload's design bill came to a relatively modest $20 million.

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