Rover stirs Mars-mania

Landing: Public interest in images sent back by `Spirit' is high, but it's uncertain whether that will translate into support for a bigger NASA budget.

Medicine & Science

January 12, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

To see Mars the way it has appeared for most of human existence, you can step outside on any clear night this month and look for the reddish "star" high above the southwestern horizon.

But ever since NASA's newest Mars rover, Spirit, began sending pictures from the planet's surface last week, millions with Internet access have been ogling the red planet in finer detail than even astronomers have ever seen before.

Everything that scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory see is being posted on NASA Web sites. Just three days after Spirit's landing on Mars on Jan. 3 - even before news broke of President Bush's proposal to send humans to Mars after establishing a base on the moon - the number of "hits" on the Mars Rover Web pages had topped 1 billion. That's more than a third of the traffic on NASA's Web sites in all of 2003.

"It is an unprecedented Internet event for NASA," said Brian Dunbar, NASA's Internet services manager.

The public response to the first successes of the $820 million Mars rover missions, space historians say, is due in part to the long romance people have had with the most Earth-like planet in the solar system and the persistent hope that it might harbor life - alien life or, one day, transplanted humans.

It also surely reflects the improved capability of the new lander's cameras and the public's access to the Internet - which has grown enormously since the last successful Mars landing, in 1997.

What's far less certain is whether the public's fascination with the Mars images will translate into increased political support for NASA's budget and for Bush's new ambitions in space.

"We like [space exploration] and think it's cool, but we don't really like to pay for it," said space historian Roger D. Launius of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Spirit and its twin ship, Opportunity, which is due to land early Jan. 25, are equipped with far better cameras than the twin Viking landers in 1976 or the Pathfinder lander in 1997.

Each rover has nine cameras. They include a one-eyed Microscopic Imager for peering at rock samples; two pairs of black-and-white stereo Hazard Avoidance Cameras pointing front and rear; and two Navigation Cameras perched high on the rover's main mast.

But the rover's best is the high-resolution, stereoscopic Panoramic Camera. It produces impeccable images in color, along with infrared wavelengths used to identify minerals.

"That's where we will get lots of high-resolution detail, where people can imagine looking for themselves with their own eyes," said Cornell University astronomer Jim Bell, principal investigator for the Pancams.

All the cameras aboard Spirit and Opportunity are the equivalent of 1-megapixel digital cameras, which capture photos consisting of about a million tiny dots - three times the resolution captured by Pathfinder.

Techniques for beaming those pictures home across 110 million miles of space have vastly improved, too. Like Viking and Pathfinder, Spirit can upload image data directly to Earth when the planet is in sight. Or it can relay the images through the Mars Global Surveyor or Mars Odyssey satellites when they're orbiting overhead.

"That has the potential to double or triple the amount of images we can send back," Bell said.

The only real limitations will be the life span of the rovers and the availability of radio antennas on NASA's Deep Space Network, which must communicate with every spacecraft roaming the solar system.

Once on Earth, Mars pictures are turned over to a commercial networking service that stores them on "mirror" Web sites across the country to provide surfers with a quick response.

The infrastructure, in place since last January, has been handling traffic totaling 1 billion bits of data per second - 10 times its normal load - since Spirit's landing.

The 1997 Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover sent back more than 17,000 images in three months on Mars. "If [Spirit] ends up living 200 days, it will probably blow out of the water any previous mission numbers," Bell said.

"It's really important to us on the team that the public has access to whatever we have, without filtering or censorship."

Bell said members of the Mars team are well aware that their success or failure might affect the future of NASA's space exploration budget, especially in the wake of February's Columbia shuttle disaster.

"We're glad to help chip in to help get the agency back on track," he said.

Some observers aren't so sure. "Whether you can translate this particular success into a general increase in the NASA budget, to do all the things NASA wants to do, including improving the space shuttle ... that's a very tough question," said American University space historian Howard E. McCurdy.

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