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Bright Mars, Bright Future
by Stephanie Wong

Mars, a bright, red disk in the sky.
© Imagiverse Educational Consortium
As Mars brightens up to its maximum brilliance in nearly 60,000 years, we cannot but think about what Mars has in store for us in the future.  With Global Surveyor and Odyssey already at Mars, and with Nozomi, Mars Express and the MER rovers poised to reach the planet in a few months, there is much to keep us occupied.  However, we must also look to the missions of 2005, 2007, 2009 and beyond, being prepared for each opportunity we encounter Mars.  For example, planetary geologist Phil Christensen has instruments on Global Surveyor, Odyssey and the MERs, but he is already planning a proposal for the 2009 lander.

Kids are going to play a big role in these missions.  Increasingly, students have been involved in data acquisition and analysis, becoming participating scientists for a week or two.  They will, in the future be selecting imaging targets, help drive rovers and a lot more.

HiRISE instrument
Credit: NASA/LPL/U.Arizona
In 2005, there will be the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), an orbiter with a plethora of science instruments.  It will take pictures in high-resolution, characterize the mineral composition, and track the weather patterns on Mars.  Unlike the recent Mars missions, MRO will launch aboard an Atlas V-401 rocket because of Earth's particular alignment with Mars and because of MRO's heavier comprehensive payload.  Set to reach Mars in the spring of 2006, MRO will bring public -- and inevitably kids' -- involvement in science operations.  In particular, HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) will collect recommendations for imaging targets.  HiRISE is an optical telescope capable of resolving objects 1 meter (3.2 feet) across on Mars.  The data return will be huge.  The MRO team is committed to an expansive Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) effort to teach the public about Mars and to let them in on mission activities.  Dubbed "The People';s Camera", HiRISE is trailblazing just that.

Phoenix test model in the Grand Canyon
Credit: HiRISE/LPL/U.Ariz

On August 4, NASA announced its plans for 2007: The Phoenix lander.  Phoenix will land in the upper-northern latitudes of Mars, investigating the sub-polar terrain.  These sub-polar areas are believed to contain large deposits of water ice in the soil, a vital element for life as we know it.  Phoenix is the first "Scout" mission, an innovative program for scientists to plan and propose entire missions from which NASA will choose to fund.

Post-2007 may seem may seem like a long while, but scientists are already in full blast coming up with proposals.  In addition to the proposed Scout missions, there will also be international contribution to Mars exploration.  For example, Japan's space agency (NASDA) has an orbiter en route to Mars.  Europe has a lander to set foot on the planet Christmas Day 2003.  France has a radio science instrument on Global Surveyor.  Russia has the High Energy Neutron Detector on Mars Odyssey.  Germany and Denmark have the Mössbauer Spectrometer on the MER rovers.  Canada will be contributing a lidar device for the Phoenix Scout mission.  There will also be more European-led expeditions in the near future. The international pace will increase as we prepare for the ultimate goal: to send humans to Mars.  No doubt, such an endeavour will require the expertise and commitment of a group of nations.

So, the world appears to be set to embark on the next frontier in space.  Mars will be this generation's moon, and it will be as exciting as the first steps on another world, 34 years ago.
Credit: NASA/KSC/Neil Armstrong

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- 7 August 2003


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Last Updated:
7 August 2003

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