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Kids on Mars

 

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Overview
From that fateful day back in 1877 when Giovanni Schiaparelli trained his telescope on the surface of Mars and identified long, sinuous "canali," people have wanted to get a close-up look at the "red planet." It wasn't until July 1965 that earthlings finally got that first look, with the help of a remote probe called Mariner 4. Then in 1971, Mariner 9 produced pictures confirming that there were no signs of advanced life on the planet but strongly suggesting that running water and volcanoes had significantly reworked the surface. In the summer of 1976, the Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft actually landed on the planet, taking the first color pictures and analyzing the soil for life. These two probes set the stage for the present round of exploration that culminated in the Mars Pathfinder and Global Surveyor missions in 1997. Mars is geologically similar to Earth. Large amounts of water once flowed over its surface, carving out deep channels and possibly forming seas in which primitive life existed. Mars also is home to Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system (three times as tall as Mount Everest). Eruptions from this giant ended millions of years ago, but the findings suggest that Mars was once a warmer, tectonically active place. Even though the atmosphere on Mars is only about one percent as dense as Earth's, it still produces weather patterns. If all goes well, the Global Surveyor will provide us with detailed weather readings over the course of one Martian year (which is actually two Earth years). In the coming years, NASA plans to send a number of additional unmanned probes to Mars to collect data on the ice caps and soil chemistry. Sending a spacecraft to analyze a planet that's 34 to 240 million miles away is a complex task, requiring an enormous amount of planning and teamwork. To get a taste of what it's like to be a Mars mission scientist, students from the Marcy Open School in Minneapolis created their own "mission to Mars." The first step in the planning process was to create a model of the planet's surface. The next step was to design a vehicle that could successfully traverse the landscape without getting stuck or, worse yet, falling over. The students tried rovers with different numbers of wheels, rovers of varying heights and widths, and rovers with different kinds of traction. After each test, design changes were made until the final working model was built. The last step was to create a computer program to actually make the system run. Once the program was "de-bugged," the class ran its model trip to Mars.

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