Four missions are being planned as part of a long-term plan to colonise Mars. Two decades after the first spacecraft was sent to the red planet, three international missions are expected to return this year to map the Martian weather of dust and ice clouds, and another is planned for 1998.
The projects, led by America and Russia and including scientists from across Europe, hope to find areas of Martian surface which are stable enough to support a space base. One of the priorities is a study of the Martian south pole where, it is hoped, vast quantities of water are trapped in the form of ice or permafrost.
Richard Zurek, of the Joint Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the researcher heading the Mars Surveyor 98 Mission, said yesterday: "If you want to put people on Mars and manufacture fuels, you need to know where the water is."
Details of the missions were disclosed at the two-yearly meeting of the Committee on Space Research, an international gathering of about 2,000 scientists at Birmingham University. Arden Albee of the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena, said the first launch was scheduled for November. It will take about eight months to arrive at the red planet which, at its closest to Earth, is 40 million kilometres away, where the craft will go into orbit over the Martian poles. The surveyors' cameras will map the surface in unprecedented detail, and other instruments will monitor weather and atmosphere.
The second launch is of a large Russian craft called Mars 96. It is employing two landers and two "penetrators" shaped like golf tees and the size of big dinner tables. The landers will be parachuted down to the surface and will monitor the weather a few metres above the ground. The penetrators will study soils and monitor seismic activity. Possibly the most ambitious mission is called Pathfinder, another American-led programme to be launched in December. "It is an engineering experiment to look at new ways of putting landing craft on the surface," Dr Albee said.
The mission would deploy tiny weather stations and a remote-controlled rover, the size of a toy, which would roam the planet's surface, taking pictures.
The final mission is the Mars surveyor 1998. It will deploy another landing craft with a robot arm near the south pole. It will dig a trench through the dust and ice to discover how hard the surface is and at what depth ice can be found.
Dr Zurek said the four missions were vital in the push to put a man on Mars and, one day, possibly transform the planet into a place habitable for humans. "The most optimistic date of putting a man on Mars is 2020," he said.
Scientists claim to have found evidence of ice on the moon, it was disclosed at the Committee on Space Research meeting in Birmingham. The existence of water could help to turn the moon into a giant launch-pad from which mankind could fly to colonise the solar system and galaxies beyond.
Researchers have suggested it is cheaper to build machines and launch craft in near-zero gravity. Water is crucial as transporting large quantities of water from Earth would be extremely expensive.
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