[Here at the Flash, we note with both amusement and fascination a gradual but unmistakable shift in the public statements of space scientists regarding prospects for life on other planets. It is now considered virtually certain that life exists elsewhere in the universe, on other planets circling other stars. But just as significant, it is increasingly acceptable to propose the possibility of life -- albeit primitive, or even extinct -- on very nearby worlds, including Mars and the moons of Jupiter. If we were in charge of gradually preparing the public for the "discovery" of aliens, we might use this strategy too! The following text ran on the Reuters newswire on July 21, 1996, written by Steven Young.]
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuter) -- Twenty years after sending probes to Mars, NASA is preparing a return to the Red Planet.
The first of two Viking probes touched down 20 years ago on July 20, but failed to conclusively answer if life existed on Mars. But this week, as the U.S. space agency was commemorating the anniversary, it was preparing to dispatch a small armada of spacecraft to learn more about the planet and perhaps shed some light on the question of life.
Earthlings, however, should not be overly concerned about the prospect of an attack by Martians.
"When we talk about life we're not even talking about lizards, salamanders or worms," said Wayne Lee, mission planner for Mars Operations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "We'd probably be talking about simple bacteria and microbes, if it existed at all."
Life would face a struggle on the surface of Mars, where surface temperatures average -81 degrees F and liquid water would boil away in the planet's low air pressure.
Things may have been different about a billion years ago, as pictures have revealed channels cut into the planet's surface by torrents of running water. What happened to that water remains a mystery.
NASA's exploration of Mars suffered a devastating blow in 1993 when the $1 billion Mars Observer, the first spacecraft sent to Mars since the 1976 Vikings, was lost days before it was due to arrive at the planet.
That disaster and budget cutbacks led NASA to take a different tack to Mars exploration this time.
"We have since realized that it is not a good strategy to put all our eggs in one basket. Instead, we can use the same amount of money to fly more missions, but smaller and at a cheaper cost, and if one of them goes down the tubes it does not destroy the entire program," Lee said.
Three years after NASA's Mars program seemed lost in space, two new smaller spacecraft are being readied for the journey to the Red Planet.
Mars Global Surveyor, scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral in November, will carry identical copies of five of the seven scientific instruments on Mars Observer. From 228 miles up it will be able to photograph objects on the Martian surface as small as a compact car.
Mars Pathfinder, consisting of a lander and a mini-rover, will follow in December. If all goes well, the spacecraft will enter Mars' atmosphere at 17,000 mph next July. Parachutes will slow it to about 30 mph and giant air bags will cushion its landing on an ancient flood plain.
The sides of the pyramid-shaped lander will then open like flower petals, revealing a weather station and freeing a remote-controlled rover to explore the surrounding area.
The rover, about the size of a laser printer, will roam from its base beaming back video and determining the composition of rocks with an 'electronic tongue'.
The two spacecraft each cost about $150 million, plus $65 million for each of the Delta 2 rockets that will send them on their way. By comparison, the two Viking spacecraft would have a combined price tag of $2.5 billion in 1996 dollars.
Global Surveyor and Pathfinder spacecraft will not actively test for life like their Viking predecessors, but they may tell if conditions for life exist and, in particular, whether some water remains locked below the surface.
NASA plans to send unmanned probes to Mars every other year, but only by 2018, at the earliest, can it attempt a manned mission to the distant planet.
Original file name: .CNI - NASA to Mars 7.26
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