3 spacecraft and 2 sundials to seek signs of life on Mars

December 23, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SEATTLE - Mars is about to be invaded by three successive spacecraft carrying sophisticated scientific instruments, six-wheeled robotic "rovers" and two sundials from Seattle.

The planned landing on Christmas Day of Britain's Beagle 2 will be followed by two NASA probes, Spirit and Opportunity, which will land in January. The general purpose of the missions is to find evidence of life, or past life.

What does a sundial have to do with this and why on Earth would it come from soggy, cloudy Seattle?

"When I first suggested the sundial to the [Mars] team, they said to me, `Bill, dude, this is for NASA, the space program. We have a lot of really good clocks,'" said Bill Nye the Science Guy, cracking that wry smile familiar to those who have seen his antics on television.

But Nye persisted and, if Spirit survives its Jan. 3 landing, the Red Planet will be home to the first extraterrestrial sundial - known as a MarsDial - thanks mostly to him and a fellow "gnomonocist" (sundial enthusiast), University of Washington astronomer Woody Sullivan. The Opportunity is planned to follow Jan. 25.

Nye and Sullivan hope the events will help them recruit others to build "EarthDial," a planet-wide network of sundials tracked by webcam to create on the Internet a real-time, visual reckoning of "solar time" across the two worlds.

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