The life on Mars stories last month has created the most public interest in spaceflight since the Apollo moonshots. NASA's totally speculative Martian discovery resulted in thousands of calls to its Washington DC switchboard, and its Internet Home Page was so busy it was impossible to access.

Media hysteria it may have been, but space companies such as Lockheed Martin could capitalise from the tantalising Martian titbit. Getting samples back from the Red Planet is now a priority and Lockheed is already number one on the space runway.

It is building three Martian spacecraft, the first of which departs on a McDonnell Douglas Delta 2 booster from Cape Canaveral this November.

Called the Mars Global Surveyor, it will orbit around the poles of Mars in September 1997 and conduct a systematic global survey of the planet's geology, weather and environment for three years.

A sister-craft, the Mars Pathfinder, being built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will be launched in December, and will land - on 4 July 1997 of course - at the outflow of what is thought to have been a river valley aeons ago. It will deploy a small roving vehicle the size of a microwave oven.



Two more Lockheed craft, the Mars Surveyor Lander and Orbiter, are then scheduled for launches in December 1998 and January 1999.

The Lander will touch down near the south pole of Mars, settling on what scientists believe will be alternate layers of clean and dust-laden ice and mainly frozen carbon dioxide.

It will use a robot arm to scoop up soil and deliver the samples to an analyser inside the craft, which will determine the chemical content of the ice and frozen carbon dioxide. Because of the nature of the orbit of Mars around the Sun, relative to the Earth's position, this will be the only opportunity to land near the Martian poles for a decade.

The Orbiter will take photos of almost the whole planet, with a resolution of about 40 metres. These missions will only serve to assess whether the old Mars had an environment suitable to harbour lifeforms. Further missions, which Lockheed is likely to be involved in, will be flown at every opportunity during Martian launch windows in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

The only way to really determine whether there was any life on Mars is to bring samples back to the earth, and this won't happen until 2006 under present planning, unless NASA, milking the hysteria for all its worth, can persuade the tight-pursed Congress to cough up the funds to accelerate the Mars-return schedule.





Source: Flight Daily News