NASA to launch new Mars explorers

Friday, June 6th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

In the wake of both stunning success and devastating failure, NASA will launch two new and improved robotic explorers on another mission to Mars to probe for evidence of water and possibly past life on the Red Planet.

NASA hopes to provide the world with spectacular new images of Mars next year to surpass those it got in 1997 when the first robotic rover captured global attention by rolling around the barren terrain of Mars and taking pictures of the landscape.

The first of two NASA launches is set for Sunday (June 8) at 1402 EDT/1802 GMT. Another NASA launch is scheduled for two-and-a-half weeks later when another Rover launches enroute to the Red Planet.

Project scientist Joy Crisp, who works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California, says that the rovers will, in effect, conduct the same work that human geologist conduct on earth and is hopeful the latest expedition might finally answer questions about the history of Mars.

"It's looking for the evidence of past it's not that we are looking for puddles of water which would not be stable today in our environment, on Mars, but to look for clues in the rocks, they are like field geologist that are going to look at the rocks up close and take measurements and try to figure out if liquid water was around when the rocks formed," she said.

A scientist at NASA seems wistful about its Mars landing success of 1997. The attempt to land another rover there in 1999 failed, so the space agency is redoubling its effort.

"In this complex business you can get a million right and one simple thing wrong," said JPL scientist John McNamee after Nasa's last mission to Mars failed due to human error n 1999. An investigation said the cause was management failures and overworked engineers and scientists.

This mission to Mars will utilize the same landing technique as the 1997 mission, racing through the atmosphere of Mars, deploying a parachute and dropping in an airbag that inflates to cushion its impact. When the bag deflates, the orbiter opens up like a flower and the four-wheeled robot rolls down a ramp ready for business.

"I think the tremendous pressure that I feel and I think my friends feel is that we have invested so much effort in this mission and we love it so much that we want it to work. It is an internal pressure thing that is beyond any external pressure and yes we know it is hard, many Mars missions have not worked but we are doing our best and we think this one is going to do great things."

NASA isn't the only agency taking advantage of a brief window when Earth and Mars are closest together. Earlier this month, in a joint effort, Russia and the European Union launched the Mars Express, an orbiter also looking for signs of -past life on the Red Planet. Joy Crisp says that unlike the Cold War, researches on both projects do not see this as a competition.

"I think now everybody is in it together and you feel for your colleagues everywhere, you know they have invested the same kind of effort in their mission and so everybody is rooting for all of these ones to work," she said.

NASA has selected targets on opposite sides of the Mars where the two rovers will roam to help answer the question, where did Mars' water go? Scientist at NASA point out that the strength of the dual rover concept is that the loss of one would not mean complete mission failure.