New Robots to Explore for Life on Mars

ByABC News
June 6, 2003, 1:18 PM

June 9 -- The Mars exploration rovers should take seven months to get to the Red Planet. But for Steven W. Squyres, the journey has already lasted seven years.

"This is going to be, when we pull it off, humanity's first great voyage of exploration of this century," says Squyres, an astronomy professor at Cornell University. He is principal investigator for the mission, and was part of the small team that first proposed it back in 1995.

It has been slow going since then, even though the two little ships will need to go 25,000 miles an hour to leave Earth's gravity on the way to Mars. In the last several years, the rover plan has gone through rejections, approvals, cancellations, delays and a final hurry-up to get to the launch pad.

"It's been a roller coaster," says Squyres. "You lose sight of the fact that, yeah, we're actually sending two robots to Mars and exploring."

The 400-pound rovers, each with six wheels, nine cameras, and five scientific experiments on board, are designed to spend at least 90 days rolling slowly across the Martian surface. They are not designed to look directly for life, but their examination of the rocks and soil around them may suggest whether conditions on Mars are, or ever were, right for living things.

Beagles, Moles, and Rats

It is a busy time in the business of exploring Mars. A British-led team, using a Russian rocket, launched its own probe June 2. It consists of a main ship, called Mars Express, which should orbit the planet after releasing a small lander called Beagle 2. (The name is a reference to Charles Darwin, who formed his theory of evolution after traveling the world on a ship called the Beagle.)

British scientists celebrated after the launch, but Colin Pillinger, the team leader, called it "only the quarter-finals."

"The exciting bit, the bit we're going to enjoy most," he said in an interview with the BBC, "is doing the science to discover, is there, or was there, life on Mars."

To that end, Beagle 2 has a robotic arm and 12 tiny ovens to heat soil samples and see what gases they emit. Certain chemical compounds could suggest the presence of living organisms.