Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Observer Cruising to Mars to See `What Makes It Tick' Spacecraft Will Provide New Details

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Observer Cruising to Mars to See `What Makes It Tick' Spacecraft Will Provide New Details

Article excerpt

NASA's MARS Observer zooms into orbit around the Red Planet this month as the United States returns to Martian skies for the first time in 17 years.

"We're going back to Mars because we're curious," said Arden Albee, chief scientist of the $980 million mission run by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"We want to understand what makes it tick, how the atmosphere and weather works, what the climate history was; did water carve the canyons and channels we see and, if so, where did it go?"

Mars Observer, launched from Florida on Sept. 25, is scheduled to reach Mars on Aug. 24 after a curving, 450 million mile journey.

It will fire its braking rockets for 29 minutes to drop into an elongated orbit around the dry, mostly frigid planet. The spacecraft will spend the next 2 1/2 months maneuvering into a circular, near-polar orbit 234 miles high.

Then the spacecraft will turn on its instruments and make one complete photographic map of the planet during a month test period before starting its detailed explorations on Dec. 16.

For at least 687 Earth days - one Martian year - the Mars Observer will circle the planet every 118 minutes, taking tens of thousands of photographs and measurements as Mars changes with the seasons.

It will give the project's American, British, French, German and Russian scientists their most detailed look at the planet's landscape, weather, climate and internal workings.

"We're going out and exploring. It's entertainment for the soul," said geologist Michael Malin, designer of the Mars Observer camera. The camera is designed to capture details finer that any planetary spacecraft to date.

NASA's Mariner 4 produced the first close-up pictures of Mars' surface in 1965. The last U.S. vessels to visit the planet were the twin Viking orbiters and their landers, which settled on Martian terrain in 1976.

Researchers hope Mars Observer will show how Mars' climate changed over the eons and whether conditions ever were suitable for life, even though life probably doesn't exist now, said Albee, who is a geologist, planetary scientist and graduate dean at the California Institute of Technology. …

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