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Living with the Global City
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Next Stop: Mars

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Fall 1999
Next Stop: Mars
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While 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.

Says 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."

What 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."

"This 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."

Among 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.

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