En route to Mars

The allure of space is a never-ending quest for man. Mars has always caught the fancy of earthlings, teasing their mind with the possibilities of life, since decades now. But the red planet has always been enigmatic and has not yielded secrets of its surface and atmosphere so readily, though man has remained tenacious with several expeditions.


Galactic Ghoul

But these expeditions have somehow remained ill starred barely making it to the Martian surface. In fact, since 1960 there have been around 33 missions to the Red planet, but around 22 have broken up en route or failed to complete their search; out of the remaining, which made it to the Martian orbit, only three have been able to land on the surface to send back some data.


Unable to fathom these doomed expeditions, some scientists, giving free reign to their imaginations have come up with the theory that there might be celestial and mythical monster out there, guarding the planet. Naming this the great Galactic Ghoul, they say that this monster gobbles up any craft nearing the planet.

But undaunted man is not going to be terrorized by a galactic monster, hence the spate of launches taking off this June.


Launching into space

Two of the three launches to the Red planet blasted off on June 02 and June 10 respectively. The first one was launched by the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA launched MER-1 (MER stands for Mars Exploration Rover), on June 10, it is slated to launch MER-2 on June 25.


But why this sudden rush and urgency? Well, it has its reason and extremely plausible ones too, which has to do with physics and the planetary motions. It takes around seven months to reach Mars; in comparison, the moon is just a hop-skip and jump away, at a mere three days. August is set to see an "opposition" to Mars, meaning that Mars will be closest to the earth around that time. Taking advantage of this and the necessary flight path, June is the perfect month for the launches. What's more is that we are unlikely to see this opportunity for another 60,000 years! So, you can well imagine the need to take advantage of this opportunity. The craft sent off by ESA will go into Mars orbit, Ghoul-permitting of course, on December 26. The other probes sent by NASA will follow suit in early January 2004.


The rovers

Each of these ships will eject a remote-controlled rover, (much smarter than the earlier Pathfinder, which stood 1ft high and 2ft wide, weighing 24lbs); these rovers will stand 5ft tall and weight about 400 lbs. Fitted with multiple cameras and other gadgets, to scoop and pry rocks, bore the earth and do a battery of tests and activities, these rovers will walk over the Martian surface for a round 90 days, trekking around 3,000ft.


The rovers will travel to deep basins and other formations of Mars, these basins looked as though they had some water in them - and as we all know, this is a key requirement for life. MER-1 will land in Gustev crater, deemed to be an ancient lake; MER-2 will set foot in Meridiani Planum, which is a plateau-like area, lending the impression of repeated inundations of water.


ESA's Beagle 2 rover is touted as the one, most likely to find signs of life; it weighs 30kg and is fitted with a host of scientific tools. Among its instruments there are drills capable of digging 5ft below the surface, a dozen ovens, which can heat samples to about 1,600 degrees F to identify carbon isotopes and other elements. Beagle 2 can also measure ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, atmospheric pressure and temperature. It has three cameras, among them is one, which has a microscope fitted to it to examine rock surfaces and other particles. It has also sensors to measure wind, dust and other atmospheric occurrences.

Once MERC 2 goes off into space, we will have to wait patiently till they all reach destination Mars safely. These expeditions have already sent in ripples of excitement in the scientific community as well as the public, early 2004 will tell us what the next wave of excitement has in hold for us.