Maryland Science Center getting into `Spirit' of rover

Exhibit to let visitors build robotic explorer

January 07, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Space enthusiasts inspired by the Spirit rover's panoramic views of Mars can pop down to the Maryland Science Center today and try their hand at building their own robotic explorer.

The Center's Space Link Exhibit provides visitors a bin-full of parts - including motors, wheels, robotic arms and claws to scrape up soil samples - to build a rover "as big as you'd like it to be," says Luke V. Bate, 32, the Space Link manager, who has built a few Martian vehicles himself.

"Every day, I throw something together," says Bate, who's been at the center nearly four years. "You select parts from the bin, plug them together and plug motors into them and see if they work."

Some kids have built rover models 3 feet tall. But Bate says the smaller ones tend to be more stable, at least on the simulated Mars-scape of the Mars Link Exhibit. The Science Center does not yet provide rockets to launch your rover toward Mars.

But the center allows visitors to monitor closely Spirit's activities on Mars.

"We are providing live coverage through NASA television," Bate says. We have a satellite link to NASA. ... They released the first color images, and we watched it."

Spirit's first color photographs were viewable in real time at the Science Center. NASA said the pictures were three to four times sharper than on any previous Mars missions so they can show rocks "as big as a Volkswagen" in a landscape stretching toward a mesa rising against a reddish sky.

"To me, the surface of Mars has always reminded me of the deserts of Arizona," Bate says. "The comparison of Earth and Mars is always interesting."

The Space Link Exhibit also has several Internet-capable computers so people can go to the Web sites that are specifically linked to the Mars missions.

"As fast as they're releasing them, we have access to them," Bate say, usually from a link to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "That's where all the stuff is happening.

"And on Mars, too," he quips.

With a computer tracking system, the center shows the sites of the different Mars missions, including Spirit landing in Gusev's Crater, all in Mars time.

"Mars' rotation is a little longer than Earth's rotation so the day is a little bit more than 24 hours," Bate says.

The Science Center will point its telescope toward Mars when weather allows. But, unfortunately, the telescope is not powerful enough to see Spirit in its crater.

"Probably a telescope orbiting the planet could," Bate says. "And there are lots and lots of things orbiting the planet taking pictures as well. ...

"I see this as another step to greater exploration," he says. "These are just steps to lead us to bigger steps that enable us to get there ourselves."

The Maryland Science Center, Light Street and Key Highway, is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission: adults, $12; children 3 to 12, $8; seniors (60 and up), $11. Call 410-685-5225 or visit www.mdsci.org.

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