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Probe sets the stage for Mars

The unmanned craft will map the planet like never before, in preparation for explorations by astronauts.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published August 9, 2005


CAPE CANAVERAL - While some NASA engineers worked Monday to bring the space shuttle Discovery down to Earth this morning, others were putting last-minute touches on a mission to Mars.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a two-ton scientific probe, is scheduled to blast off as early as 7:54 a.m. Wednesday in NASA's most comprehensive attempt yet to uncover the mysteries of Mars. The MRO spacecraft will turn into a Martian satellite, photographing its dusty canyons and towering mountains, testing its atmosphere and using radar to peek beneath its rocky ground.

Michael Meyer, chief scientist of NASA's Mars exploration program, said some of these investigations could help scientists discover "whether or not life ever started on that planet (and) if not, why not."

The data also could help scientists map out potential water deposits that could, in theory, be used by astronauts on a future human mission to Mars.

Mars has inspired human imaginations for generations, from ersatz theories about canals lining its surface, to pulp fiction tales of bug-eyed monsters, to the H.G. Wells science fiction classic The War of the Worlds .

NASA is pursuing a more prosaic plot line: the story of water.

Recent Martian probes have proved water once flowed on Mars. Scientists want to learn when it flowed and where it went. It's important not only for what it tells scientists about the planet's geologic history, but also because water is a key to life. Finding hints of life on Mars is a subplot of this Martian mission and others.

MRO will carry a powerful telescope and digital camera, along with a device called a spectrometer, which will be aimed at the Martian surface to learn more about its geology. For example, finding active or even extinct geothermal areas would beg for further investigation, because such areas are thought to be cradles of life.

Finding sedimentary layers of ancient lake beds also would be valuable, providing fossil evidence of life, said Richard Zurek of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mission's project scientist.

Although this mission won't touch the surface of Mars, it is designed to pave the way for others that do. The high-powered telescope and camera should find suitable terrain for future Mars rovers, said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, a specialist working on the telescope.

Also, the United States is now in the early stages of a plan outlined by President Bush to return astronauts to the moon, and send them one day to Mars.

Mapping raw Martian materials such as ice, water or minerals also could be important for astronauts, Zurek said. They may need to know such things as "is the water ice close to the surface and is there a lot of it? Could we get to it easily?" he said. "We don't want to be hauling cement to Mars."

A radar device developed by the Italian space agency will allow scientists to look for water beneath the surface.

The orbiter is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas-V401 rocket Wednesday morning, but it also could blast off Thursday or later this month. It will feature a 10-foot-wide antenna and wide solar panels.

The MRO will spend seven months soaring through space until it winds up just in the right spot for Mars to catch up to it. The planet's gravity will suck the spacecraft into an egg-shaped orbit. Using a technique called aerobraking, the drag of the atmosphere and later rocket firings will turn the orbit into a near circle.

For two years, MRO will circle Mars and aim six scientific instruments at the planet and its atmosphere. For an additional two years it will serve as a powerful communication relay, sending data back to Earth from other probes on the ground.

--Curtis Krueger can be reached at 727 893-8232 or krueger@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 9, 2005, 05:02:53]


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