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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 18:08 GMT
Martian mysteries under microscope
Mars Polar Lander's first action will be to look around Mars Polar Lander's first action will be to look around

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

It was once said that we could know all the facts about Mars and still not have the complete story.

Everything we know about Mars tantalises us. It is clear that it has not always been the little-changing, half-frozen world it is now. All over its surface are signs of an active past.

Once torrents of water cut deep gorges and canyons on its surface before the flood spread out over vast plains slowly evaporating into the hazy sky. On the horizon, chains of huge volcanoes stretched as far as you could see, spewing out gasses into the atmosphere and smothering great areas with lava.

And perhaps once, somewhere, in a little warmish pool of water enriched with dissolved chemicals, life stirred.


If not looking for life, then the Mars Polar lander hopes to decipher the clues in the polar landscape for what happened to the red planet billions of years ago.

The lander should survive for two or three months The lander should survive for two or three months
Soon after landing, a multi-spectral, stereoscopic camera called the Surface Stereo Imager will begin a photographic survey of the landing site. The camera is identical to the Pathfinder camera that landed on Mars on 4 July 1997 and took more than 16,500 images.

According to current plans, mission controllers will flex a two metre robotic digging arm on day 4 of the mission, 7 December.

The Mars Volatiles and Climate Surveyor (MVACS) experiment will search for water and other gases that once filled the thick Martian atmosphere. Today, the Martian atmosphere is so thin that if temperatures were to reach above freezing, water would boil away.

Past atmospheric gases may be locked as ice, salt and other compounds in the soil. MVACS scientists will dig for the answers.

Lamps mounted the camera will shine red, blue and green light in several directions. Without the coloured lights, scientists would see only black-and-white images. With them, they will see colour as well as the structure of the soil.

Two probes will slam into the Martian soil Two probes will slam into the Martian soil
The Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyser (TEGA) will use a tiny electric oven to cook some Martian soil.

On day five (8 December), or after, the robotic arm will begin scooping samples of frozen dirt into TEGA so scientists can learn how much water and carbon dioxide are locked in the layered polar terrain.

The instrument has eight analysers, each holding two ceramic ovens. One oven in each analyser remains empty, the other will hold a thousandth of an ounce (about 30 milligrams) of Mars soil.

The ovens heat at a controlled rate of a few degrees per minute up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. A carrier gas wafts gases released during heating into a chamber that uses lasers to analyse amounts of water and carbon dioxide.

Life as we know it

If all goes well, we will know a great deal more about Mars in a few weeks. But what about life?

About a hundred years ago a newspaper editor asked an astronomer to write 500 words on whether there was life on Mars.

The astronomer sent back "Nobody knows" 250 times. I guess it will be just the same after the Mars Polar Lander runs out of power and is encased by frost as the winter draws in.

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See also:
30 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Polar lander ready for Mars
11 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Orbiter loss blamed on 'silly mistakes'
06 Oct 99 |  Sci/Tech
Evening clouds on a Martian volcano
10 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Scientist fights Mars setback
03 Sep 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars Lander set for soft touchdown

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