Next Stop: Mars
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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
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,"
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.
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.