The Space Track is one of the highlights for science geeks like me. Tucked away in the Forsythe room of the Hilton, the programming is out of this world. Planetary scientist Dr. Kevin R. Grazier began a two-part presentation concerning the red planet on Friday at 2:30 with “The History of Mars.”
For an organism to exist and thrive requires food, air, and water. Mars has food—mostly basalt—but life will find a way to deem the materials at hand consumable. The red planet has an atmosphere. It’s thinner than a teenaged model, but there’s carbon dioxide in plenitude. As for water, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests it’s present, and each mission builds a portfolio of evidence to prove it’s not only in the ice caps but also lurking below the surface in a state of permafrost.
The appetizer portion of the presentation began with early astronomers and their observations of the red planet. Moving quickly through the centuries, Grazier touched on the role of H.G. Wells’s novel, War of the Worlds, and its impact, from the novel’s debut in 1897, through reactions to the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Wells, to the 1953 movie, right up to modern Hollywood interpretations in 1996 (Independence Day) and 2005 (War of the Worlds).
The entrée consisted of the revelations about the existence of water on Mars deduced from the 1976 Viking I and II missions of lander/orbiter combos with a side dish of the 1965 Mariner 4 low-resolution photos.
For dessert, arguably the best part of the meal, Grazier outlined a variety of successes and failures on Mars. In the winning column: the 1993 discovery of ALH 84001—a meteorite of Martian origin discovered in Antarctica that questionably carries a fossilized form of life, the 1997 Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner rovers, and the 2004 Spirit and Opportunity robotic explorers. In the learning experience column: 1992 Mars Observer explosion and the 1999 Mars Polar Lander nicknamed the Polar Impacter. But even in failure, NASA plows ahead. The 2007 Phoenix Mars mission’s Scout was built from the engineering spare of the Polar Lander. This new player in the Mars game will land in May of 2008.
The second part of Grazier’s Mars presentation, outlining the current data and images, took place on Saturday at 8:30.