April 09, 2001, 2:35 PM — MARS, WITH ITS WIND-SCULPTED surface and possibilities of ancient life, has always held deep fascination for humans. Ever since the first Viking spacecraft landed there a quarter century ago and sent back the first pictures of the martian landscape, that fascination has only deepened. In 1997 the Mars Pathfinder became the latest visitor to land there successfully, enchanting the public at home with a series of visually stunning panoramic shots that have whetted the appetite for future and more extensive exploration of the red planet.
What the public didn't know was just how difficult those shots were to engineer and to get back to Earth. The Pathfinder could send data at an average of only 30 megabits a day, meaning one panorama could take many days to relay.
That just doesn't cut it for the kind of work that scientists at the Mars Network Office -- a federally funded outfit associated with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- want to do next. To achieve their ultimate goal of discovering whether there is, or has ever been, life on other planets, scientists need to significantly improve communications between Mars and Earth.
This year, the Mars Odyssey orbiter will carry, in addition to its suite of science instruments, a telecommunications relay package that will provide support for a 2003 mission that will land two rovers to roam Mars' surface. The rovers will perform sophisticated scientific experiments, such as collecting soil samples and analyzing them at the scene. A second mission planned for 2005 calls for a Mars reconnaissance orbiter that will include a camera capable of capturing images on the planet's surface that are only 20 centimeters wide. Then, in 2007, NASA will collaborate with the Italian space agency to send an orbiter that will be the first to have telecommunications as its primary function. Ultimately, we could see a spaceborne Internet that could revolutionize how people work in outer space, just as the Internet is changing our more prosaic Earth-bound life. Chad Edwards, manager of the Mars Network Office, talks about taking a major step forward in space exploration that could also have implications for how we use the data gathered from interplanetary visits on Earth.
CIO: What are your long-range plans in terms of telecommunications?