The red planet, named for a god of war, has been the subject of study and of fantasy for millennia. Late Saturday night, the Spirit rover touched down safely. Among other things, it will look for evidence of water, a crucial ingredient to life as we know it.
Chuck Watson, a NASA consultant who makes his home in Savannah, understands the potential gains of such exploration. "If we think about studying the earth, we've only got one earth, only one example," he said. "So by studying particularly Mars and Venus--they're the two planets most like earth--we learn quite a bit about our own earth, cause it's like having another example to study that turned out differently."
He's also aware of the challenges. "It's a difficult environment to work with because if you think about it, the spacecraft has to travel the 100 million miles roughly to get from earth to Mars," he said. "Once it gets there it has to transition from working in space to working in an atmosphere, then has to safely land. That's a very tough sequence of requirements."
NASA reported today that Spirit is "healthy" and the mission is going as planned. But among the many challenges that still face the ground team in exploring this hostile terrain, Watson reminds us there's a 20-minute delay in communications between here and Mars.
"There's still a lot of stuff that has to go right," he said. "The vehicle is wired down and there's actually little explosive charges that all have to go off, I think there's 48 different pyrotechnic charges that have to go off to separate the vehicle, unfold it and get it off the lander."
Overcoming those challenges might be the key to solving mysteries as old as stargazing itself.