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Living with the Global City
When Memory Comes
Next Stop: Mars

University Communications

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Fall 1999
Next Stop: Mars
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"We've tried to minimize the cost and risk by incorporating as many previously used items as possible, but in almost all cases these instruments are new in terms of what they're actually going to do," says Paige. Laboratory tests are one thing, but whether they'll behave the same way on Mars is another. Last January, trying their best to simulate Martian conditions on Earth, Paige and a colleague journeyed to Antarctica's dry valley regions to test the capabilities of the robotic arm to dig samples out of the cold, dry soil. So far, so good.

In mid July the flight team began initial operational readiness tests, using copycat versions of the spacecraft and instrument components to simulate the first four days of the surface mission. "It's our first chance to see what it's like to be operating, and to make any necessary corrections," Paige explains while overseeing one of the tests. Still, no amount of preparation can ensure a smooth mission. "Based on past experience, we're guaranteed to have snags of various types, and we can only hope that they aren't insurmountable," he says.

Most problems are indeed solvable, but with a full plate of experiments to run, significant delays could prevent the job from being completed. The scientists will want to take advantage of each moment on Mars, because the mission must end just short of three months after landing. The lander, which operates on solar power, is arriving in late southern spring, when the sun will be above the horizon throughout the day. In the early part of the mission, local Mars surface temperatures are expected to top out at a relatively toasty zero degrees Celsius. Toward the end of the summer, as the sun dips closer to the horizon and temperatures cool, the lander will have more difficulty generating solar power and will be forced to spend more time in its energy-conserving "sleep" mode. On March 1, 2000, the lander will see its first Martian sunset, and the clock will strike midnight on data-collection efforts.

Paige has little time to reflect on the cosmic significance of what is about to happen. That's probably for the best, since all the preparation in the world can't guarantee that the mission's scientists will ultimately collect the data they need to draw conclusions about our neighbor planet.

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