Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ballooning Dreams of Mars

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ballooning Dreams of Mars

Article excerpt

THE first human footfall on Mars still lies in the indefinite future. But robotic study of that intriguing planet is entering a phase that could be the next best thing to being there.

Encouraged by this prospect, planetary explorers are dreaming ambitious dreams they can reasonably expect to fulfill over the next couple of decades.

They hope to gain an intimate on-site knowledge of the Red Planet by studying it from the outside in. That's why they view the arrival next week (Aug. 24) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Mars Observer spacecraft as just the beginning of a new saga of planetary exploration.

Mars Observer is to produce a geological map of the entire planet, including the mineral composition of its surface. It is to follow Martian climate through at least one full Martian year (687 Earth days) of seasonal cycles. That's the outside view. It should yield a wealth of new scientific knowledge.

But the big payoff will come when advanced robotic explorers reach the surface to verify what Mars Observer sees from orbit and gather the kind of intimate detail that "down-in-the-dirt" geologists probe for on Earth. That's what the planners' dreams are about.

They already have at least one - and probably two - such follow-up missions in hand. Russia's Mars '94 mission, now due to head for the Red Planet in November 1994, is to deposit two instrumented landers and two ground-penetrating probes. Like Mars Observer, this is a mission with wide international participation on its scientific team. Meanwhile, NASA's fiscal 1994 budget, now awaiting Senate approval, includes funds for a "Pathfinder" mission with a simple landing craft that would deploy a small robot rover.

Farther down the line, Russia hopes to launch another international mission in 1996 that would also deploy a robot rover plus a French instrumented balloon. But Mars '96 is not yet fully funded.

It's beyond these approved - or nearly approved - missions that the dreaming of planners such as Roger Bourke starts. …

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