While the Roswell Incident anniversary and the hit movie Men in Black focuses our collective consciousness, this weekend there's lots of real-life drama in space. In addition to the current Space Shuttle mission and the continuing efforts to fix the crippled MIR space station, scientists will be holding their collective breath as the Pathfinder lander enters the Martian atmosphere. If all goes well on Friday, after the unmanned craft touches down on the surface it will begin sending back images of the red planet. Meanwhile, scientists will continue to study stunning images of a giant asteroid recently sent back by another craft, while a rescue mission lifts off in Russia to save the MIR crew.
With tremendous interest in the Mars landing this weekend, NASA has set up this page to direct netizens to the nearest server for Pathfinder information. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars Pathfinder site there are status reports, including notes about the successful completion of Pathfinder's fourth and hopefully final trajectory correction before hitting the planet's atmosphere on Friday. Also here is a timeline of the mission including the Independence Day touchdown schedule. Should you want to know more about the mission, there are details on how the spacecraft's navigational system works, explanations of why corrections are needed along the way, and an illustrated simulation of the landing. Also here are precise descriptions of the landing site, which even include a QuickTime VR tour of Ares Vallis. For some hard history of the planet and what we know about it so far, there's a rather technical fact sheet on Mars and its two satellites, Phobos and Deimos. Many will remember the first glimmer of life elsewhere said to have been discovered in tiny microbial fossils in a Martian meteor. Further information on that discovery can be found at the site as well. There are even updated down-to-earth live images taken from the MarsRoom at JPL. So no matter what perspective you're looking for, to follow the mission this weekend, this is place to go in cyberspace.
The Mars Global Surveyor Home Page
Pathfinder isn't the only vehicle winging its way toward the Red Planet. The Global Surveyor mission is also underway. At the moment, it's just been reprogrammed to continue collecting solar wind data and improve its transmission rates back to earth. Unlike Pathfinder, the Global Surveyor will not touch down on the surface of Mars but rather orbit the planet beginning this September. Atmospheric and mapping information will be gathered for several years as the vehicle floats above the surface. Following the completion of its main mission, the Global Surveyor will remain in orbit and function as our first communications satellite on another planet, relaying information from future Mars landing missions back to earth. You can read about how all this will work at the official site, or take a peek at several video clips of animations depicting various aspects of the mission. There are clips showing spacecraft testing, the Delta rocket launch, and animated simulations of, for example, aerobraking, the technique that will be used to bring the Surveyor into a smooth orbit. It's all professionally presented online so that you can find out what's next in the U.S. Mars missions.
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous
Mars isn't the only space story this week. Just last Friday, scientists began studying photographs sent back of the largest asteroid ever observed up close. The craft responsible for the over 500 pictures is the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous or NEAR and at John Hopkins University's Advanced Physics Laboratory webstation you can get a glimpse of the photos yourself. The asteroid, officially known as 253 Mathilde, is an eerie looking dark mass about the size of Rhode Island. The pictures on display at the site show an asteroid out of science fiction stories, itself the victim of smaller asteroid hits. Detailed captions accompany each photo, and scientists hope to use these images to learn not only about Mathilde but also about the origins of the universe. This particular fly-by and photo session was a fortuitous offshoot of the main mission. NEAR is designed to head out to the asteroid belt to meet up with and begin orbiting another asteroid called Eros. But that won't happen until 1999. Until then there's plenty to study and wonder at in the Mathilde photographs. The John Hopkins team responsible for this Web site has done an excellent job bringing it all together online.
Space Station MIR
Closer to home, a damaged manned space station orbits our own planet. On Wednesday, June 25, a cargo and garbage module of the Russian Mir Space Station crashed into the Spektr module during a test of a new docking guidance system. The accident caused a massive power loss to the station, since the Spektr module is responsible for power generation for the entire station. The module also sprung a leak and had to be sealed off. At the moment, things have stabilized on the station and the crew, including American astronaut Michael Foale appear to be safe. This weekend the Russians will launch an additional vehicle that will hook up with MIR and provide it with materials necessary to complete repairs. On July 11, a planned internal space walk will be conducted to patch up the leak and re-route power. For in-depth information on the station, its crew, and its mission, NASA has set up this Web site. You'll find a detailed diagram of the sprawling 11-year-old station that's hotlinked to descriptions of each of the modules. Additional pages cover the history of the station, the joint U.S.-Russian projects, and information on how all this links up with the planned International Space Station. As we watch and wait for images from Mars this weekend, our best wishes and hopes remain with Astronaut Michael Foale, Commander Vasiliy Tsibliev, and Flight Engineer Alexander Lazutkin aboard MIR.