Placid Mars lifts spirits of an unquiet world

Monday, January 12, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. -- Here on Earth, there is mad cow disease, SARS, war and the threat of terror.

Up there in space, 100 million miles from the din of everyday life, a six-wheeled rover called Spirit sits safely on the placid, ancient surface of Mars.

Busy and beleaguered earthlings have made time over the last week to gaze on Mars through Spirit's own eyes, which have revealed with 20/20 vision a landscape that is at once as familiar as it is alien.

The undulating terrain, stained rusty red by the iron-rich dust, lies strewn with rocks that stretch to the distant horizon, where a flat-topped mesa rises skyward. Gentle ridges of wind-blown dust line up behind the larger stones, each smoothed by the gusts that sweep the area. Close by, a tawny, soft cluster of hills stand clumped together. The sun -- our sun -- sends shadows marching across the face of a tiny sundial mounted on the vehicle.

The images could be from our planet -- the Mojave Desert, maybe.

"We do have something in common," said Courtney Dressing, a 16-year-old Virginia high school student chosen to work alongside scientists and engineers on the mission.

But it's not Earth.

It's Mars, splayed out under a reddish-pink sky that reminds us how different a place it really is.

Other spacecraft have shown us Mars before, but never in such startlingly crisp detail. Artist conceptions of the landing site, created before Spirit landed, are well off the mark.

"Reality," said Art Thompson, a robotics engineer on the mission, "has far surpassed fantasy."

Spirit of exploration

President Bush called the successful Jan. 3 landing of Spirit a "reconfirmation of the American spirit of exploration." And just days later, sources in the White House said he would speak to the nation next week about future space plans -- setting up a permanent moon base and later, sending humans to Mars.

Interest, both at home and abroad, in Mars remains high: Spirit's landing has become what the government says is its most compelling Web event ever.

"It's a confidence-inspiring measure and a good sign for the future of planetary exploration," said John Marburger, Bush's science adviser.

Exuberant members of the $820 million mission caution the best is yet to come. For now Spirit remains parked as it readies itself to trundle off on what should be a three-month voyage of exploration.

"Taking America on a ride with this vehicle is what this mission is all about," said Rob Manning, who oversaw Spirit's safe landing on the often unforgiving surface of the Red Planet. Just one in three past attempts to land on Mars have succeeded.

NASA launched Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, to prospect for evidence that the planet once was rich in water and, just maybe, life. Opportunity trails Spirit by three weeks and should land Jan. 24.

The golf cart-sized rovers won't look directly for life or for water. Instead, they should read the martian rocks and soil, just as a human geologist would, for evidence of the past presence of water. This mission builds on the 1997 Mars mission by NASA's rover Sojourner, which found evidence suggestng a warmer, wetter martian past.

Scientists expect Spirit and Opportunity -- bigger, brawnier and brainier -- to read deeper into the history of Mars and roam farther. That prospect charges the imagination of scientists eager to push back the martian horizon once the rovers complete their main work.

"I want to put the pedal to the metal and send these rovers over the next hill and do some exploration," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science. "I'd like to let these rovers go."

NASA boasts the rover pair are the most sophisticated robots ever sent to another planet.

"This is a phenomenally complex mission. These are frighteningly complex machines," said Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, the mission's main scientist.

Mission members have struggled to get Spirit off its stationary lander and ready for exploration -- a step delayed because the deflated, sturdy polymer air bags that cradled the rover blocked its way.

They fret that the robot now must roll down a second, more risky path and that evidence of the dry lake bed they hoped to find may be more difficult to uncover. Then, there is the next worry looming ahead -- the landing of the second rover, Opportunity, on the other side of Mars.

But for the world-weary earthlings whose spirits were lifted by Spirit, the wonder and awe remains. Even to some extent for those ever-practical scientists. Who knows what might be found.

"The possibilities are endless," says Jim Garvin, lead scientist for NASA's Mars exploration program. "We can't even predict what we might learn." ------

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