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More Mars Missions Scheduled Despite Latest Loss

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  • Jeroen Kumeling
    ... SIGHTINGS ... More Mars Missions Scheduled Despite Latest Loss By Deborah Zabarenko link 12-8-99 WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ever since an Italian astronomer
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 9, 1999
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      More Mars Missions Scheduled Despite Latest Loss
      By Deborah Zabarenko
      link
      12-8-99




      WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ever since an Italian astronomer saw ''canals'' on
      Mars, humans have looked to the Red Planet for clues of life in outer space,
      and even the loss of NASA's Mars Polar Lander will not stop that quest.

      The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to launch the Mars
      Surveyor craft in 2001, with a rover expected to land on the planet in 2002.
      In 2003, a U.S. mission is scheduled to orbit and land, along with a
      European orbit-and-land mission the same year, followed in 2005 by separate
      French and U.S. missions to collect samples.

      Despite the gloom of the Mars Polar Lander, which was lost on Friday as it
      prepared to land on Mars on a geological mission, astronomers still see no
      reason to abandon the pursuit of Earth's next-door planetary neighbor.

      ``I know what I'm afraid of: that there will be people who will try to use
      this as an excuse to cut (the Mars exploration program) off,'' physicist
      Robert Park said in a telephone interview.

      ``The excitement about Mars is pretty much just focused on the question of
      whether there is any life or fossil life on Mars,'' said Park, who is based
      at the University of Maryland.

      The questions that may be answered by sifting through the martian surface
      are essential ones about earthly identity, Park said. ``If nature was to
      (create life) somewhere else, would it do it the same way? We are likely to
      learn an enormous amount about ourselves that we couldn't learn any other
      way.''

      Even a discouraged-sounding Richard Zurek, a project scientist on the Mars
      Polar Lander, did not suggest stopping the search for signs of liquid
      water -- a prerequisite for life -- on Mars.

      But he did say that the strategy for pursuing this knowledge may have to
      change. ``It may be that Mars itself, that maybe the polar regions, were
      riskier than we realized,'' Zurek said.

      The martian polar regions have fascinated observers as long ago as 1704,
      when early astronomers first spied white patches at each end of the planet
      and theorized that they might be analogous to Earth's polar ice caps.

      From ``Canals'' To ``Martian'' Rock

      Interest in Mars was further piqued in 1877, when Giovanni Schiaparelli
      reported seeing ``canali'' on the planet, an Italian word that would have
      properly been translated as ''channels'' for water to flow through.

      Excitement over the Suez Canal at the time caused a mistranslation of
      ``canali'' to ``canals'', implying that intelligent life-forms on Mars had
      built a system of canals, according to NASA's chronology of Mars
      exploration.

      While scientists no longer give credence to the ``canals'' theory, they have
      looked at startlingly clear images from the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor
      showing traces of what might have been a martian ocean.

      The unsolved mystery is where the water went, and whether any life formed
      before the water departed.

      Earlier this year, researchers found evidence that tectonic plates on Mars
      once slammed into each other much as they did on Earth, further fueling
      speculation of large bodies of martian water. And a potato-sized rock found
      in Antarctica and unveiled in 1996 gave a tantalizing glimpse into what some
      researchers claimed was fossilized life from Mars.

      Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who holds a doctorate in physics, said
      any knee-jerk reactions to cut Mars exploration may be due to a public
      inability to tolerate the kind of risks common to scientists.

      He also said risks on robotic missions such as Mars Polar Lander are more
      easily tolerated than any failure on a human mission would be. Beyond that,
      Holt said the United States under-funds scientific research in general and
      saw no reason to cut back on Mars research.

      ``I think the total funding for Mars missions is a couple billion dollars
      over 10 years,'' Holt said in a telephone interview. ``In a country that
      should be spending several hundred billion dollars on research of various
      kinds over that period, I don't think that's too much.''



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