Christine H. O’Toole.
Mars has been the object of human speculation
for centuries, since Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens
image in early telescopes in the late 17th century. Since
1976, when the Viking landers replaced speculation with
actual photos of the surface from the red planet, Mars
missions have harvested a trove of information about the
planet’s landscape, its geologic history, its seasons,
and even tantalizing hints of underground life.
arrival next November, the Reconnaissance Orbiter will
record information for two Earth years, encompassing
a full Mars year. Every 112 minutes, the spacecraft will
make a complete circuit of Mars, pouring data back to Earth
10-times faster than any previous expedition.
and volume of data, beamed back with stunning full-color
images, illustrate a paradox: the more we learn
about Mars, the less we seem to care. Media reaction to
repeated U.S. Mars landings has been generally muted—a
surprising response, given the difficulty of the feat.
(Almost two-thirds of all international missions to the
planet have failed.) But as Carnegie Science Center’s
Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium begins work on a 2006 show
about the red planet, staffers plan to present a striking
interpretation that will help tell audiences why, once
again, Mars matters.
How Alone Are We?
Our audience has told us loud and clear that even more
than the manned space program, they really want to learn
about the Hubble Space Telescope, rovers on Mars, the search
for life in the universe—the big questions,” says
John Radzilowicz, director of visitor experience for Carnegie
Members of that audience gathered at the
Science Center on August 11 to listen to a Pittsburgh native
spent his career filling in parts of the big picture. Bill
Hartmann, 66, is a Mars polymath who has extended a brilliant
career in crater science with imaginative painting and
fiction writing about Mars and other members of the universe.
Hartmann grew up in New Kensington, dreamed a lot at Buhl
Planetarium, graduated from Penn State University, and
is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute
in Tucson, Arizona. The first winner of the Carl Sagan
Medal from the American Astronomical Society, he is, like
his mentor Sagan, an elegant interpreter of complex astronomical
issues—easily articulating, for example, how a rock
found in the Allen Hills of Antarctica offers proof of
4,510-million-year-old volcanic activity on a planet 50
million miles away.
The Mars research program has built in a very good and
profound thread to tie missions together,” Hartmann
says. “Unlike the other planetary exploration—the
missions to Pluto or Saturn, just to see what we would
find—we are getting to know Mars well enough to have
a strategy. Each mission builds on the ones before. The
long-term strategy is to find out whether life started
on Mars and, if so, did it go extinct?
That is a perfect philosophical and scientific question
for humans—because, yes or no, it’s profound,” he
says. “We have a huge, gaping uncertainty if we are
unique in the universe. We know Mars was like early earth—a
planet with water. If life did not start there, are we
more alone than we thought?”
Image of Mars taken this summer by the Spirit rover.
Two kinds of missions—orbiters and landers—have
contributed to the under- standing of those questions since
1971. Arriving that year in a month-long
dust storm, Mariner 9 showed a geologically active
planet, with volcanoes and polar ice caps. Subsequent lander
Viking, Pathfinder, and current Mars Explorer
have methodically explored regions of the planet’s
Mars has divulged its secrets grudgingly. Viking’s
landmark discovery of an apparent barren ancient lake
and streambeds, in an intensely thin and frigid atmosphere,
missions to understand the history of Mars’ watery
past. Salty subsurface ice—perhaps the tip of giant
frozen lakes—has been sensed just below the Martian
Meanwhile, evidence from radioactive isotopes has
exposed the hidden geothermal record, or internal heating.
That heating is also visible on the planet’s surface:
Mars’ “Olympus Mons” is the largest volcano
in the solar system, and “Valles Marineris,” at
the planet’s equator, is a canyon that on Earth would
stretch from New York to Los Angeles.
The quest became
more interesting in 1986 when scientists found a tiny piece
of evidence on Earth: the Mars rock in Antarctica. After
a decade of analysis, NASA scientists announced that the
ancient Allen Hills sample, dated to the earliest Noachian “abundant
water” era of Mars, appeared to contain fossil microbes.
The microbes may have entered the rock
in water, leading to speculation that conditions for life
on the planet did exist.
The life in question may not take
the dramatic shape of the aliens in the blockbuster movie
War of the Worlds.
But to Hartman, the possibility of microscopic
life is equally intriguing.
We are picking up traces of missing links—but we
don’t know the missing steps,” he commented.
In his book, A Traveler’s Guide to Mars, he
single-celled Martian microbes lie dormant in sub-surface
ice layers or thrive in energy-giving, deep-seated geothermal
sites, analogous to the weird and unique life forms that
cluster around deep geothermal vents of
Probing the Surface
Before a manned mission to Mars can go beneath the surface—an
event envisioned by Hartmann in his novel, Mars Underground—rovers
and orbiters will continue to scope out future landing
Opportunity and Spirit, the intrepid
little robotic probes currently trekking the Martian surface,
continue to send data about land formations and rock composition.
The planet’s surface will be explored even further
with the long-armed Phoenix stationary lander, set to launch
in August of 2007.
Robots developed here in Pittsburgh
are prototypes for the rovers of the Mars Science Laboratory,
launch in 2009. Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute
is designing and analyzing smart, energy-conscious, solar-powered
concept vehicles that will make their own decisions on
The current robot, called Zoe, is now being
tested in Chile’s
Atacama Desert, whose extreme environment mimics Mars.
Project director David Wettergreen, associate director
of the Robotics Institute, says that a fluorescence imager
beneath the rover will be used to detect the presence of
molecules indicative of life, sending its data back to
Pittsburgh. The technology has exciting applications for
future Mars missions.
Tantalizing clues and high technology
have combined to push human understanding of Mars ever
closer. But the public
still expects—and needs—interpretation of the
latest discoveries. And that’s where places like
the Science Center step in.
We are the go-between,” says John Radzilowicz. “We’re
in the translation business. In developing our programs,
we ask, what can people absorb?”
Radzilowicz and Planetarium
programmers James Hughes and Dan Malerbo are in the process
of creating a new 25-minute
show all about Mars. Outside collaborators, including Bill
Hartmann, may join in, as the astronomers at local universities
and experts throughout the country often cooperate with
planetarium staffers on projects. Once the script is written,
they’ll match research with images from NASA and
other sources; Bill Hartmann’s paintings may illustrate
some concepts. Finally, they’ll commission original
music, and the resulting package will debut at Carnegie
Science Center next fall.
With any show, we give people a feeling of being there,” Radzilowicz
says. “You can
get images on the Internet, but can’t immerse yourself
in that image from horizon to horizon. The planetarium
provides a level of detail and feeling that you can’t
get any other way. That’s the big attraction of the
Planetarium shows lure stargazers
the world over. And Carnegie Science Center’s Buhl
Planetarium is the largest non-profit distributor of planetarium
shows, selling more than 400 programs to facilities around
the globe, and translating them into 15 different languages.
All of us on staff have that love of the planetarium experience,” says
Radzilowicz. “We like to do a little awe. We also
deliver a high level of scientific accuracy. It’s
good information and accessible to people.”
team’s Mars production show up in planetariums throughout
the world? “Based on
the interest we have heard among our colleagues, we think
this show will be a great success,” Radzilowicz says.
I came to the old Buhl Planetarium all the time as a kid,” Bill
Hartmann says. “I’d sit in awe of Mr. Draper.
[The legendary Arthur Draper directed the Buhl from 1941
to 1971.] Among my fellow planetary scientists, there are
a handful of us who came up that way. Others came in as
pure physicists—they’re amazed to see maps
Hartmann still recalls his introduction
to his life’s
work at age 10. “My brother had an encyclopedia with
a map of the moon. I was blown away seeing it, realizing
that it was not just a light in the sky, but an actual
place. It was like getting into Lord of the Rings—a
fantasy universe. But this one was real.”
the universe real should be a task for mass media, he notes.
But in Hartmann’s opinion, news coverage
of planetary science has failed to convey its achievements. “American
media is, increasingly, the latest hot murder trial or
disappearance, or football, or basketball. We get excited
about these short-term things for 15 minutes.
We don’t talk about the things that really matter.
This exploration of Mars is a 500-year adventure that most
of us don’t ever think about. Science museums have
a great role in communicating the journey. We gotta realize—the
quest is exciting.” And, say true
believers like Hartmann and Carnegie Science Center staff,
one that really matters.
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