Next Stop: Mars
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providing the scientists with a treasure trove of material for study,
the severe environment of the polar region poses a greater threat
to the spacecraft's safe landing and survival than the previously
visited mid-latitude sites. Finding safe but scientifically interesting
terrain was the challenge of the mission's scientists and engineers
over the summer as they weighed the crucial decision of where to
land. To make the final selection, they augmented data from previous
Mars orbiter missions with new data returned from the Mars Global
Surveyor Orbiter, which relayed images of the target sector in June.
Paige: "I'm sure we'll be surprised when we see what the landing
site looks like on a human scale, because no one knows."
scientists do know is that Mars was once nothing like the dry wasteland
it is today. The Viking orbiters and landers that arrived in 1976
found valley networks and winding flood channels that, while currently
dry, were most likely carved by flowing water — the key ingredient
to fostering life. Viking provided compelling data on Mars' geology,
atmospheric water vapor and surface meteorology, but it was limited
to the planet's mid-latitude region. "Mars has a total land area
at least the size of Earth's, with diverse climate zones and geologic
structures," says Paige. "You might consider ours to be the first
mission to try to sample some of that diversity."
is just like any other trip, except we're going to Mars," muses
Paige during a rare break. "When you're planning for any trip, you
figure out where you want to go, plot your course on the map, get
together all of your gear and make necessary provisions."
the many differences, of course, is the inability of the "travelers"
to relax during transit. By summer, with the lander still five months
from its final destination, the pace in Westwood is frenetic. Much
of the action centers around the MVACS facility's test bed — an
operational mockup of the lander inside a 300 square foot sandbox
— where the team members conduct dress rehearsals by running various
sequences designed to monitor how the instruments are functioning
en route. The calibration is especially important given the fact
that MVACS is an integrated package of instruments; a glitch in
one can create havoc elsewhere.