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Published: Saturday, 1/3/2004

Mysteries of Mars

On Christmas Day, the Beagle 2 was supposed to phone home from the surface of Mars, roughly 35 million miles away. It didn t. European space agency officials don t believe that its Mars lander has joined other doomed probes in a ribbon of satellite wreckage across the planet s surface.

It s the nature of planetary scientists not to lose hope until the last diode has burned out. The exploration of the “final frontier” would be impossible without it. As mankind steps gingerly into the Martian neighborhood with unmanned probes that, we hope, will be followed later by manned spaceships, scientists expect some failures along with the successes.

Today, Spirit of the Sky, America s latest remote-controlled probe, is scheduled to join Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars. If all goes well, the Spirit will unfurl like a flower from its protective shell. A six-wheeled rover will zip across the dusty surface and seek geologic samples for three months before it burns out. Opportunity, its twin land surveyor, will crash-land at the end of January and search for evidence of water in the Martian past.

A lot is riding at NASA on this $820 million mission, but whether it succeeds or fails, the exploration will continue. Forty-three years after the Soviets tried to send a probe to Mars, these unmanned probes are still controversial. They needn t be.

People are compelled by intelligence and curiosity to wonder about their planetary neighbors. Perhaps it s a modern form of “manifest destiny” that drives us out there. Whatever it is, striving to understand great unknowns like the universe is an essential part of what makes us human.

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