Monday, May 26, 2008

NASA's Phoenix Spacecraft Survives To Land On The Angry Red Planet

I watched the touchdown of NASA's Phoenix spacecraft in the northern polar region of Mars. You don't really get to see the lander itself on TV, only the the people in mission control. It was clear that the lander had landed safely when they stood up and cheered.

The first images from the lander brought back memories of the first Viking Missions in the late 70's, or the days in 1997 Pathfinder mission strained dial-up connections downloading images of dusty red rocks.

According to, only 50 percent of Mars missions have made it safely to the surface. Others missions, like the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander, reached the planet, only to be smashed into the rocky surface due to glitches with engines or software.

The description of Mars mission failures sometimes feel the planet itself has something to do with the loss of spacecraft, reaching out to swat away the pesky landers like metal mosquitoes.

The treacherous nature of Mars exploration brings to mind an old science fiction movie: The Angry Red Planet.

This 1960 film was filmed in a process called Cinemagic, which was supposed to make the Martian surface seem alive with animated creatures. The trailer boasts how aliens and hungry plants will reach out to get you...IN CINEMAGIC!

The scene I remember the most is when a giant "space amoeba" chases the crew back to their rocketship, then encases it like fruit in a jello mold.

Considering how many space probes have been lost on Mars, the red planet doesn't need gooey blobs to devour visiting spacecraft. The planet is quite capable of doing that job itself.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What Awaits On Mars - 1957 Versus 2008

When the first space probes sent back detailed pictures of the Martian Surface, years of fanciful speculation by filmmakers, writers, and artists were replaced with cold facts. Mars resembled the deserts of the Southwest United States, not the exotic plains imagined by science fiction. Mars was more Arizona than Barsoom.

Paleo-Future features a fine example of the 1950's vision martian life: a furry creature with an anteater-like snout. Considering this was the era of cold-war paranoia, with drive-in screens offering a barage of hostile communist-like aliens bent on destroying our cities, this fuzzy Dr. Seuss-esque martian looks harmless and cuddly.

On May 25, 2008, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander will touch down on the arctic plains of Mars. The Phoenix Mars Lander will use sensors to "sniff" the soil for chemicals and try to determine whether conditions at the site ever have been favorable for microbial life.

Microbes are not as exciting as the ALF-like creature in the 1950s illustration. Any sign of life on Mars would be big news. If a little creature did emerge from the rocks and waved to the camera, it would be the shock of the century...not to mention a chance for toy companies to cash in selling plush dolls.