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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Planet Mars Goes Online

Red Planet to go online

NASA plans to issue Mars news and weather updates on the Internet and take World Wide Web browsers along for rides in a Mars rover once the Pathfinder spacecraft arrives at the Red Planet.

The probe is to be launched December 2 and land July 4, 1997.

"Every day on the Internet, we're going to post the weather report on Mars -- a little different than Earth -- and there will be a virtual presence on Mars, so everybody in America and for that matter around the world can participate," NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said Wednesday.

Web users will be able to see what the Mars rover sees as it ambles along the surface and scrutinizes rocks. Expect a 20- to 40-minute lag, though, for the time it takes the signals to reach Earth.

Mars Pathfinder will be the first spacecraft to land on Mars since NASA's twin Viking landers in 1976. Back then, there was no way to share such wonders with so many people. Even with the more recent planetary probes, there's never been anything like this.

"I would definitely term this the first planetary mission in the full-blown Internet era," said NASA spokesman Douglas Isbell. "It's vicarious exploration."

Cold and colder

If all goes well, the rover, named Sojourner, will study Martian rocks and soil for at least a week, possibly months, with scientists and Internet browsers following along.

As for the Martian weather forecast, make it cold and colder. At its equator, Mars is a brisk minus-70 degrees Fahrenheit and gets colder the closer one gets to the poles.

"I would hope that every newspaper would show the weather in Timbuktu -- and why not on Mars, too?" asked Matthew Golombek, project scientist for the Mars Pathfinder. "It's a little chilly, but a nice place to be."

In addition to Pathfinder, NASA plans to launch a Mars orbiter called the Mars Global Surveyor on November 6. It will take 10 months for the spacecraft to reach its destination. Once there, it will map the planet from a circular orbit for two years.

The color images will be posted on the Internet within a day or two.

Neither of the Mars probes will carry messages from Earthlings like Pioneers 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2, all launched in the 1970s.

NASA is gathering signatures, however, to put on one or two CD-ROMs that will be attached to the Cassini probe, to be launched next year to Saturn. So far, some 500,000 signatures have been collected, Isbell said.

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