Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Alana Firl (03/17/04)

This week's class entirely consisted of going to the CAVE and virtually exploring Mars. Not only did this justify the title of this seminar, but it was also quite entertaining. With a little imagination, one could feel as though they were literally flying over the Martian landscape.

Despite the approximations involved in achieving a basically accurate representation of the terrain, it was quite clear that getting a vehicle to navigate nicely over such a planet would be challenging, which is one reason that human exploration of Mars might prove an advantage over robots. I'd imagine the fact that the rovers must be sent through space to crash land somewhere on the planet, bounce a few times, and right themselves before going anywhere, puts considerable limitations on their maneuverability and ability to perceive their surroundings due to a much-needed emphasis on durability. What they are capable of doing is adequate and the data is amazing, but if people were on Mars doing the same things as the rovers, we would have more options simply because most humans have better critical thinking skills than machines. There would be fewer questions as to data interpretation, and it would be easier to evaluate obscurities in the pictures. It would also be easier to do follow-up on experiments and find answers to new questions inspired by the data. When Jay was talking about the “blueberries” (spheroles), I couldn't help but think it would so convenient if someone could just be on Mars, walk over to these strange lumps, pick one up, and explain what it was. There is a certain blindness on Mars that is at this point impossible to overcome with technology and artificial intelligence. The obvious disadvantage to sending humans to Mars is the greatly increased travel complications.

The next best thing then (particularly as it pertains to first year undergraduate Brown students) is the CAVE. While it did an excellent job of providing a basic idea of what being on the planet would be like, I think it could have been improved by a greater emphasis on the scaling. For example, being nearly as tall as Olympus Mons was fun but it gave a false impression of ease when flying past/through/over it. I liked how the edges of the valleys looked like the Devil's Postpile in Yosemite. I saw the Devil's Postpile when I was three and I don't remember a thing about it, but it brought back nice memories of being told about all the spectacular places I have been that I have absolutely no recollection of.

One frustrating thing about the Spirit and Opportunity is their necessary slowness. If there were any way they could be designed for self-navigated flight, it would be infinitely easier to get them to travel directly from point A to B. That would probably require too much energy to be feasible, but it's a nice thought nonetheless. While on the topic of unfeasibility, it would also be really fun to hanglide off the edge of Valles Marineris, but that's only assuming the air isn't too thin. And even if the air was too thin, it would still be exhilarating until you had to land.
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