THE LAST TIME NASA sent a satellite to Mars it disappeared, giving conspiracy theorists fuel to insist extraterrestrials had destroyed the probe and the government was covering it up. Space agency scientists eventually conjectured that Mars Observer malfunctioned and exploded three days before it was to enter Mars orbit in August 1993. But that is just a theory. No one really knows what happened. Better luck is expected with Mars Global Surveyor, which begins a 10-month journey to the planet tomorrow.
Global Surveyor will orbit Mars and begin sending photographs and other data back to Earth. It will join Mars Pathfinder, a faster probe which is scheduled to leave Earth on Dec. 2 and end its trek by actually landing on Mars in July. The robotic missions should provide information that can help determine whether life has ever existed on Mars. That possibility has become more plausible now that British scientists have joined Americans in concluding ancient meteorites from Mars do contain evidence of past microscopic life.
The British assessment was important for more than scientific reasons. After American geologists said they had found traces of life-related chemical and mineral compounds in a Martian rock that dropped to Earth 16 million years ago, some skeptics speculated that NASA had manufactured the discovery to bolster its arguments against continued budget cuts for U.S. space exploration. But the British scientists independently came to similar conclusions based on their analysis of a Mars rock that fell to this planet only 600,000 years ago.
How intriguing. Perhaps more than any other planet, Mars has been the subject of earthly musings about life on another world. Nineteenth century astronomers with their primitive telescopes saw what they mistook to be canals on the surface of the Red Planet. In 1965, Mariner IV became the first spacecraft to fly by Mars. The Soviets then landed a probe on the planet in 1971, but it malfunctioned after only 20 seconds. Five years later, the U.S. successfully landed Viking I and Viking II on Mars, but they have been silent since 1982.
What scientists learn in the upcoming missions to Mars may determine the course of international space exploration and what should be NASA's purpose for decades to come.
Pub Date: 11/06/96