25 December 2003
Earth Invades Mars
New York Times


The last time Earth and Mars were as close together as they were last August, we were not ready with our spacecraft. That was some 60,000 years ago, and at the time, humans were still refining the pointed stick. This time, we are prepared. Over the next month or so, beginning early this morning, Earth is going to try to pepper Mars with craft. The first vessel to land will be the Beagle 2, named for the ship that carried Charles Darwin to South America and the Galápagos Islands, a voyage whose research eventually led to his theory of natural selection. Beagle 2, the first European spacecraft to visit Mars, successfully detached from its orbiter, Mars Express, last week after an uneventful flight and, if all went well during the night, was to land in an impact basin called Isidis Planitia.

Up next will be two American Mars landers, Spirit and Opportunity. (A Japanese mission to Mars failed early this month.) Spirit will land in Gusev Crater on Jan. 3, Opportunity in Meridiani Planum on Jan. 24. Beagle 2 is a stationary lander with a mobile arm capable of scooping up soil and boring for samples. But Spirit and Opportunity — with the mass and mobility of a Galápagos tortoise, as one scientist pointed out — should be able to travel up to 125 feet a day, much farther than the previous Mars rover, Sojourner, which managed a mere three feet. Together, if they thrive, these missions will double in one month the number of successful landings on Mars, the first since two Viking spacecraft landed in 1976 and since Pathfinder, with the Sojourner rover, landed in 1997.

The purpose? To find unambiguous evidence of the former presence of water, which would suggest a very different Mars in the distant past. The surface patterns of the planet strongly suggest that at some point in its history, Mars was subject to powerful erosion from floods, though there is scientific dispute over the apparent absence of some chemical compounds that would have been left behind in the rocks if water had been present. These three landings will offer a deluge of new data that, when sifted, may completely transform our understanding of Mars, and the possibility of life elsewhere besides our small blue planet. So when you have finished opening presents this morning, go to the European Space Agency's Web site and find out whether Beagle 2 settled safely to ground.


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