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Answers from Mars

PBS NOVA documentary highlights the engineers behind the Mars missions.

2 min read
Answers from Mars

Mars: the planet that keeps on giving.

The successful summer landing of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Curiosity, captured the world’s imagination, provided a steady stream of new discoveries, and spawned a series of TV documentaries on the National Geographic and Discovery channels.

This week, NOVA’s Ultimate Mars Challenge—airing Nov. 14 on PBS at 9pm (ET)—joins the fray, not only chronicling the engineering necessary to make the landing, subsequent exploration, and scientific discoveries possible, but placing it in context with preceding Mars missions. (The program spells out what we learned from past missions that informs the current one, as well as what we hope to learn from this one that, budgets allowing, will inform the next.)

“One of the reasons Mars is still exciting is because it hasn't turned out to be a boring story at all,” said MSL project chief engineer Rob Manning during a NOVA press conference. “Every time we've turned a page, we've learned something more rich about this planet, that maybe there's something more to go. Now, we're going to start exploring Mars over the coming two Earth years. And a lot of it is, `What are we going to learn?’ And of course, we'll have to debate and duke it out with everyone else to figure out the right thing to do with limited resources.”

Challenge producers Gail Willumsen and Jill Shinefeld culled more than 60 hours of raw NASA footage and their own interviews for the hour-long documentary. They note that getting the project finished was a challenge. With discoveries continually flowing in from Curiosity, they were making changes right up to the day they needed to submit it to NOVA.

Billions of years ago, “Mars and Earth had similar conditions for life,” says Willumsen, who also directed the documentary. “It arose on Earth, but we don’t know if it arose on Mars. What we do know is that Mars changed radically: something happened and it went in a different direction. The exciting thing about the landing site, Gale Crater, is that it has Mount Sharp, which is a mountain of layered rock that is a chronology of Mars’ history. So they’re going to, theoretically, go through and read those layers and perhaps find out why it became the cold, dry planet of today. It’s a massive form of climate change.”

Among the more frustrating decisions the pair had to make in streamlining the documentary's focus, was cutting one interview with Nathalie Cabrol, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountainview, Calif. 

“The thing she said that really struck me was that the need to explore is rooted in all of life, not just Homo sapiens,” says Willumsen. “The impulse to explore is part of the survival instinct.”


The Conversation (0)

Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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