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Stars in Sinai

A Mars rover in a staged publicity shot before being shot into the solar system

In a recent speech at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, President Obama pledged the US to landing a man on Mars within the next three decades. To do this, he promised new funding and a streamlined NASA focused on developing cutting edge technologies and visionary missions. More controversially, he announced that he was abandoning Bush’s project to bring the Americans back to the moon. “The simple fact is”, he said, “we have been there before.”

Mars, currently visible in the night sky, has been in the American’s sightlines since 1965 when their Mariner 4 probe was the first to fly past it.

Then in 1971, Mariner 9 made the first detailed photographs of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, and Valles Marineris, the longest and deepest canyon, 3000 miles long and 4 miles deep.

On the Bicentenary of the American Declaration of Independence, 4th July, 1976, NASA landed a Viking probe on the planet. It’s mission was to test for life in the surface soil. Something it was unable to find. At 1.1 billion dollars for the cost of the mission, it was probably the most expensive negative result ever obtained from a science experiment!

In 2004, twin rovers landed on Mars, looking like hybrids between golf buggies and quad bikes. They were in fact robotized geologists, programmed and hard wired to search for evidence of water action in the past. Designed for only 90 days of operation, they were still trundling round the landscape five years later. One of the rovers landed in a 20 m wide impact crater, and when it scanned its surrounding with its bug-eyed stereoscopic cameras it saw the characteristic layered rocks of sediments that must have been deposited in former ocean beds.

In 2006, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MRO, trained its ultra high resolution camera on the planet and caught a glimpse of one of the rovers parked on the north side of a crater, sitting out the cold Martian winter before resuming its work in the approaching warmth of summer. A curiously quaint and intimate image of America’s presence on a distant world.

It also sent back pictures of a landscape where water once flowed in rivers, formed deltas and filled oceans. If most of that water has since evaporated away, there is clear evidence that a lot of it is still trapped under the ground as permafrost or held in the polar ice caps. And where there’s water, there’s always the possibility of life or its fossils.

With five American satellites currently orbiting the planet and a couple of its robots on the surface, the day one of its astronauts walks on its surface now seems more than just a glint in a president’s eye.

This blog first appeared as an article in the Cairo BCA Magazine for May, 2010, to advertise astronomy in Sinai with an 8″ Meade LX90 Telescope.