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Global mosaic of Mars. Visible in the center of this mosaic is the largest known chasm in the solar system, Valles Marineris.Reproduced from Volume 14 of the Mars Digital Image Model (MDIM) CD-ROM set.

























“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.”

-Bill Hartmann, Planetary Science Institute







Mars Matters

Mars has been the object of human speculation for centuries, since Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens deciphered its 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.

On its 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.

The detail 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 the
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 Science Center.

Members of that audience gathered at the Science Center on August 11 to listen to a Pittsburgh native who’s 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.

Microscopic Life

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 missions, including NASA’s Viking, Pathfinder, and current Mars Explorer Rover missions, have methodically explored regions of the planet’s surface.

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, spurred subsequent 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 soil.

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 notes, “Conceivably, 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 Earth.”

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 sites.

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, planned for 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 navigation.

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.

Scientific Translators
“ 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 dome experience.”

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.”

Will his 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.

Real-Llife Fantasy
“ 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 of planets.”

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.”

Making 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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