by Michael Lindemann
(March 1, 1998) -- Richard "Face on Mars" Hoagland sounded the alarm on late-night radio in late February and set off an immediate storm of protest. Michael Malin, operator of the cameras on the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft, had announced on his web site that the cameras were shutting down. To Hoagland, it seemed too much like a conspiracy -- the shutdown comes just as the MGS is getting into position for some really good shots of Cydonia, the region containing the famous "face" and "pyramids" of Mars.
Up to a point, Hoagland was right. NASA has confirmed that the instruments on MGS, including the cameras, are now shut down until approximately late March. The timing is indeed unfortunate, since it is likely that a good opportunity to photograph Cydonia will be missed.
However, according to Professor Stanley V. McDaniel, a leading proponent of the theory that Cydonia's landforms are artificial and a diligent NASA watchdog, the MGS shutdown is understandable, justified, and temporary. It is too soon, McDaniel says, to accuse NASA of reneging on its very public promise to reimage Cydonia.
In a detailed report on his web site (http://www.mcdanielreport.com), McDaniel explains that the temporary shutdown of all instruments on the MGS is necessitated because the spacecraft has reached a point in its aerobraking process where there is not enough time in each orbit to align the instruments toward the Red Planet's surface. In order to aerobrake -- that is, skim through the thin Martian atmosphere in order to slow down and reshape the spacecraft's orbit -- the MGS must travel with its large solar panels aimed like sails to catch the air. However, in order to take photos, it must then turn around to aim its instruments toward the planet. For a time, the MGS was turning around in this fashion during every orbit. But now, the duration of each orbit -- just over 15 hours, and decreasing -- is too short to warrant this maneuver.
However, NASA has announced that the MGS aerobraking process will be suspended from late March until September, allowing the spacecraft to continuously maintain the proper alignment for photography.
"During this period there will be several opportunities to image Cydonia," McDaniel says. "After aerobraking is suspended in late March, it will be possible to make accurate predictions and inform everyone in advance of the Cydonia opportunities.
"At that time, it would be appropriate and useful if letters, messages and calls were directed to NASA/JPL urging Cydonia imaging," McDaniel says. Further information on how to contact NASA can be found at his web site.
Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press on February 16, NASA scientists are quietly preparing for the day when a human spacecraft will return from Mars with samples of rocks, dirt -- and possibly life.
Like the germs carried by early European explorers that caused epidemic disease among Native Americans, any living Martian germ might pose a risk of disease or infection for the Earth's people, plants or animals.
According to current plans, samples could be returned from the Red Planet in about ten years. Sample-return missions will be launched toward Mars in 2001 and 2003.
"Samples from Mars should be considered hazardous until proven otherwise," Jonathan Y. Richmond, a biological containment expert for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on February 15 at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"The risk is very small, but not zero," said John D. Rummel, NASA's planet protection officer. "We're ignorant (about Mars) and what we've learned in biology is that when you are ignorant, be careful."
NASA is said to be planning a laboratory that would quarantine the Mars samples behind the same biocontainment barriers that scientists now use to prevent the escape of the most lethal organisms on earth, such as the Ebola virus.
NASA has done this before. A complex laboratory was built to quarantine moon samples returned during the Apollo lunar program. No evidence of moon life was expected, and none was ever found.
But, Rummel said, "Life is quite a bit more likely on Mars than on the moon." Mars is now understood to have been a relatively warm, wet place, perhaps with oceans, some 3.5 billion years ago, at a time when life was appearing under similar conditions on earth.
"There's nothing about Mars that we know of that would have prevented life from evolving there in the same way it did on the early earth," Rummel said.
Moreover, despite very hostile conditions on present-day Mars, it is still possible that some primitive forms of life exist there. "We are finding that organisms can live in far more extreme conditions than we once thought possible," said Margaret S. Race, a scientist for the SETI Institute.
Earth microbes have been found living inside rocks, in the superheated water of undersea volcanic vents and in the extreme dry and cold of the Antarctic.
And, while NASA pursues plans to study Mars, a somewhat more unlikely figure has launched a new project to duplicate Mars conditions in an earth-based laboratory.
Robert Lazar, the controversial scientist who claimed to have worked on captured alien spacecraft at a super-secret Nevada facility called S-4, now says he and a partner will build an underground laboratory to duplicate and study the atmospheric and geological conditions of Mars.
Lazar's new company, co-founded with Hollywood visual effects director Jon Farhat, is called Terraform, Inc. It will be based underground in a decommissioned Atlas missile silo complex near -- of all places -- Roswell, New Mexico.
According to an internet posting by John Erickson of Erickson Paranormal Research Foundation (http://www.eprf.org), Lazar and Farhat recently paid cash for the missile facility and are already moving in heavy equipment.
Lazar has described the project on his own web site at http://www.jfi.net/underground.
"Ultimately, the purpose of Project Terraform is to create a subterranean, self-contained environment that precisely duplicates the ambient temperatures, pressures, atmospheric and chemical compositions of the planet Mars," Lazar writes. "This will enable researchers to perform an ongoing real-time analysis of the Martian ecosystem based on data from the Pathfinder and Viking Martian probes."
According to Lazar's web posting, the project will be broken into two major phases.
"Phase 1 will test the integrity of the facility by sustaining a sealed biological Earth environment for a period of approximately 6 months. The 2 story Control Center will monitor conditions within the Silo Chamber and also serve as the main operations area, providing state of the art computer and communication facilities as well as a general work area for the researchers involved.
"Phase 2 will be the conversion, operation and maintenance of the Silo Chamber into a stable equatorial Martian environment. Total conversion time of the chamber is expected to take approximately 12 months to complete after the termination of Phase 1."
CNI News will continue to follow these and related stories.
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