Voyage to the Red Planet

September 30, 1992

In 1906 Percival Lowell, who had built an astronomical observatory for himself near Flagstaff, Ariz., created a stir with the publication of "Mars and Its Canals." In the book, Lowell claimed to have sighted an intricate network of "canals" criss-crossing the planet's surface. He went on to speculate that these "canals" were created by intelligent beings, inhabitants of a dying civilization who used them to channel water from the poles of their arid world to their crops nearer the equator.

Lowell's theories were discredited when other astronomers were unable to confirm his observations. But his notions of life on Mars proved popular, fueling a fascination with the red planet that continues. Last week, humankind took a major step toward increasing its knowledge of this distant world when NASA launched the Mars Observer mission from Cape Canaveral.

It marked the first U.S. flight to Mars in 17 years. The 5,700-pound spacecraft will journey 11 months before reaching the planet, where it will go into orbit and begin the most detailed photographic survey conducted of the Martian surface. Other instruments on board will enable scientists to probe the chemical composition of Mars' atmosphere and soil and search for the presence of water trapped beneath the planet's barren landscape.

The $980 million Mars Observer mission is a necessary preliminary for a manned voyage to the planet sometime in the next century. Among other things, the spacecraft's mapping data will help NASA choose a landing site for future explorers. But in these tough economic times, serious planning hasn't even begun on a manned flight, which could cost as much as $200 billion to complete.

Meanwhile, European and Russian scientists plan to send a probe to Mars in 1996 that would deploy a roving vehicle on the planet's surface and a French balloon in the thin Martian atmosphere. NASA is also studying plans for a Mars lander in 1996 and for a series of automated science stations on the planet's surface starting in 1999.

Science fiction writers have long imagined the day voyagers from Earth colonize Mars for human civilization. That's likely to be the stuff of dreams for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, unmanned missions like the Mars Observer will continue to offer the most practical means of exploring our solar system and its wonders -- at what NASA considers bargain prices.

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