TOPICS > Science

Mars Mission

August 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Carrying the largest telescopic camera ever sent to another planet, a NASA spacecraft began its journey to Mars this morning. If all goes as planned it will orbit the red planet for at least four years and send back reams of new information. Here to tell us about the mission is its chief scientist, Michael Myer. Welcome, Mr. Myer.

MICHAEL MYER: Well, I’m pleased to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us, what is the primary goal of this new mission?

MICHAEL MYER: Well, this mission is following up on the follow-the-water theme, and the idea is to track down not only how water and the climate interact at the surface and in the atmosphere, but also how water has interacted with the planet itself and formation of minerals and in the evolution of that planet. So it’s very much following that theme.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so much of the focus, of course, in recent years has been on this question of whether Mars supported life at one time or could have supported life. Is that part of the goal, too?

MICHAEL MYER: Yes. Certainly in following the water what we do is learn what habitats could have been there, whether or not any place on Mars could have supported life at one point in time or maybe even today. So this leads into where it is on Mars that we should go look for any evidence of life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you’ve got this large camera and all kinds of other fancy equipment. Tell us about that, what it lets you do, how you go about the mission.

MICHAEL MYER: Well, a camera itself is the largest camera sent to any other planet. And that will give us a very high-resolution look at the surface and spot anything about the size of a coffee table. But also we’re going to be looking in the near infrared. So this look at different colors in the infrared is at the much higher spectral resolution, meaning there’s more colors split up, and also in spatial resolution.

And what this does, we’ll be able to spot minerals on the surface on the size of, for instance, Eagle Crater, which is only 20 meters across. So this is going to give us a much better idea of thousands of places on the planet that would be particularly interesting and certainly will target the most interesting ones.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that I understand the orbiter will do is help you to find places where future rovers might land and, if I understand you right, where perhaps future manned missions might land. Tell us about that.

MICHAEL MYER: Well, certainly the orbiter with the information we get will point to the places that we would be most promising to send another rover or lander to tell us about Mars. The advantage is that we can also see things on the same scale as hazards for landers that may be going to the planet. So, in other words, we can spot a boulder that actually would be unsafe for the spacecraft to land on top of.

So it works that way in terms of identifying the most scientifically exciting sites and also what would be safe. And that leads into, of course, looking at future human exploration where we would want to find where certain resources may be available for the astronauts to use when they land on that planet.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we mentioned the rovers and I think a lot of people might be surprised to remember or be reminded that those two are still up there sending back data. What have we been learning from them all this time?

MICHAEL MYER: It’s amazing how the rovers have survived all this time. In fact, one of the things we’ve reprogrammed the Mars reconnaissance orbiter to be able talk to the rovers when the orbiter gets there in case they’re still alive then. The things we’ve been learning in from the Mars exploration rovers is that one of the things is we found evidence for water on the surface in a fairly large body, so that we know at one point in time there was water on the surface of Mars and that really encourages us at that at some point Mars was a planet that could have harbored life.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’ve had, I understand, spacecraft going near or to Mars for about 30 years now. We have these two rovers up there. As you start off on this mission where are we in our understanding of Mars?

MICHAEL MYER: Well, I have to say that it’s kind of hard to say where we are in the understanding when we don’t know what we’re going to find out. But a good comparison may be looking at the amount of data the MRO will send back to Earth. We’re expecting over 26 terabytes of information. If you take all the information sent by other planetary spacecraft back to Earth, it doesn’t compare to the amount that’s being sent back by this one orbiter. So that implies that we have so much more to learn about the red planet.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, it takes seven months to reach Mars so you have a little time to wait. What happens during that time?

MICHAEL MYER: Well, yes. It’s seven months to get to Mars and then you have to air brake to get into the right science orbit. So that’s going to take another six months. So we’re looking at the start of the science phase is planned for November of 2006.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Michael Myer of the Mars Orbiter Project, thanks very much.

MICHAEL MYER: Thank you.