Robotic Search for Life on Mars Brings Out Human Experiences
This view from Viking 2 was snapped on Nov. 2, 1976, showing a part of the lander's deck, the American flag, the bottom of the robot's high-gain antenna and a boulder-littered Utopia Planitia, the largest identified impact crater on Mars.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

PASADENA, Calif. — While robots have done the lion's share of planetary exploration to date, there are plenty of human stories to share about this ambitious enterprise.

A panel of experts stressed this point during last month's Spacefest VI conference here, during a wide-ranging discussion that focused on the search for life on Mars.

For example, panel moderator Andy Chaikin, a prominent space historian and journalist, recalled the emotional impact of watching the first photo come in at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), five lines at a time, from the agency's Viking 2 Mars lander in July 1976. [‪The Boldest Mars Missions in History]

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  • Yes - The Red Planet is teeming with tiny microbes, we just haven't found them yet.
  • Yes - An advanced civilization lives below the surface, where we can't detect them.
  • No - Life never existed on Mars.
  • No - Mars once had life, but those organisms are long dead.
"It really was one of these amazing human moments," recalled Chaikin, who worked on the Viking program while in college. "I remember the feeling of time just stopping and standing still, and watching these five lines at a time like ants going down the screen and stop. And you go, holy mackerel. And then there's another five lines. And oh my god, there are pebbles. Another five lines, and there's part of a rock. And you get all the way to the right-hand side and the footpad."

Chaikin also recalled how one of the scientists, Tim Munch, was in JPL's TV studio providing commentary to a global audience as they watched the first picture come in live.

"Tim was about six foot four and kind of came across like Jimmy Stewart, like an absent-minded Jimmy Stewart," Chaikin said. "And he was just completely riveted to the screen. And Steve Saunders said, 'Say something, Tim. He says, 'I'm being told to say something. Well, there are rocks.'"

The Soviet Venera 13 lander managed to survive the hellish conditions of Venus in 1982 and transmit data for two hours.
The Soviet Venera 13 lander managed to survive the hellish conditions of Venus in 1982 and transmit data for two hours.
Credit: NASA

The panelists — who, in addition to Chaikin, included planetary scientist and artist William K. Hartmann, space artist Mike Carroll, space journalist Leonard David and Rod Pyle of the History Channel — also discussed how a processing error resulted in the first picture of the Martian horizon having a blue sky. Once the error was corrected, the sky turned salmon pink. It was left to the late astronomer Carl Sagan to explain to the press that salmon is a perfectly acceptable color for a planetary sky.

Ironically, while the sky on Mars is pink, the sunsets are actually blue, due to particles suspended in the sky — the reverse of what it is like on Earth.

The talk turned to the possibility of human exploration of the Red Planet as well. An audience member asked what type of person would want to live in a Martian habitat, which would likely have to be buried underground to protect its occupants from dangerous radiation.

"I think the answer is, they're going to have to be heavily sedated," Carroll joked, drawing a huge laugh from the crowd. "No, it does take a special kind of person to be an explorer. Those who go to Mars will not be going there for quality-of-life issues, obviously. Initially, it will be for the joy of discovery, for the science, and it's going to be a major sacrifice."

No planet is more steeped in myth and misconception than Mars. This quiz will reveal how much you really know about some of the goofiest claims about the red planet.
The original 'Face on Mars' image taken by NASA's Viking 1 orbiter, in grey scale, on July, 25 1976. Image shows a remnant massif located in the Cydonia region.
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Mars Myths & Misconceptions: Quiz
No planet is more steeped in myth and misconception than Mars. This quiz will reveal how much you really know about some of the goofiest claims about the red planet.
The original 'Face on Mars' image taken by NASA's Viking 1 orbiter, in grey scale, on July, 25 1976. Image shows a remnant massif located in the Cydonia region.
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The panelists also shared some funny stories they had heard from Soviet scientists about their nation's planetary exploration program, which enjoyed its greatest success at Venus. The effort was not without its problems, however.

After the Venera 13 spacecraft landed on Venus on March 1, 1982, the lens cap on its camera popped off as planned, providing scientists on Earth with images of the broiling landscape. Then the automated soil probe arm automatically deployed — and took a big chunk out of the lens cap, which was lying directly in its path on the ground.

"So, 66 million miles to sample its own lens cap," Carroll said. "We know what those lens caps are made out of now."

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