Paul Berry (03/17/04)
Of all the things that I have been able to do while being at Brown since last August, going into the "cave" is certainly second, behind only going to Cape Cod over Thanksgiving. I say this truthfully, because in no way did I have the appreciation that I now have for the geography of Mars. I found myself questioning the validity of choosing coordinates before we went into the cave, assuming (which is always a dangerous thing to do) that regardless of my destination, I would see the same landforms, the same red dirt, and the same craters, whether I was in Valles Marineras or in the Northern Lowlands. To say I was mistaken would be an understatement, as my experience was quite different from what I was expecting. I was expecting to "fly" over Mars, but was not expecting to be able to explore the insides of large craters, soar through canyons much larger than our own magnificent Grand Canyon, and examine the paths cut out by glaciers around the polar ice caps. The detail to which we were shown was incredible, for our purposes, and was able to give us the closest view that many (I say many and not all) will ever be able to have of Mars. Unfortunately, we could not input coordinates into the system, which I think was the only fallacy in this incredible set-up. However, the amazing qualities that the machine was able to present to us far outweighed the small price we had to pay to not go to exact positions around the Martian planet.
Before entering the cave, we were allowed to tour Mars by using the two dimensional screen, which was almost equally entertaining as the three dimensional version. This gave us an additional opportunity to explore the surface in a slightly different perspective, which was more of like looking out of an airplane and seeing only what is in front of you. In the three dimensional, we were able to sense depths and distances that were unavailable in the two dimensional simulation.
While in class we also summarized the weekly findings from Spirit and Opportunity. In the Meriandi crater, Opportunity finished an X-Ray spectroscopy of a small set of jagged edges on a small red rock called "Sharks Tooth." In preparation for several soil surveys, Opportunity backed away from Sharks Tooth and proceeded closer to the crater's rim. In the Gusev crater, a rock named "Serpent" was the subject of a "scuffing" maneuver, which was intended (and successfully completed) to reveal the inside material of the rock. Observations using the "panoramic and navigational" cameras and the "miniature thermal emission spectrometer" were made. After completing this, atmospheric measurements were taken.
With this incredible technology come certain advantages in preparations for both robotic and human exploration of Mars. At this stage in our outer-planetary exploration capabilities, and the stage that the technology is in, it can be used for purely recreational purposes, not in quantitative analysis or scientific preparation. As Mr. Forsberg told me, the relation of our size to the planet's topographical features was as if we were giants. Otherwise he said, we could create a program to make the sizes a 1:1 ratio, but flatland would cover a great deal of the planet's surface as we would walk on it. Until this is done, no serious problems regarding landing both manned missions and robotic missions can be performed plausibly.
In regards to the list of fundamental questions, I think that this is a rhetorical question that can have questions of its own at the moment, but cannot be set in stone. I say this not because I think that we will be great enough to answer all the questions that we have about Mars, but because I think that as we learn more and more about the Red Planet, our questions will continually changed to cast doubt on issues pertinent not only to what is happening on earth, but also what occurs on Mars (For example if people suddenly lost interest in life on other planets, that discussion would die). If I had to make my own list it would include the following: Why did the planet become so dusty and barren? How is it that Mars has such powerful storms while Earth, which is much larger, has weaker storms? What happened to all the water? What caused volcanic activity to halt planet wide?I think that the overall enthusiasm was very high both in preparing to go to the cave and also while we were there. Not only was it a nice break from the usual discussion (not that the discussions are boring by any means), but it allowed us to finally see what we have been talking about since the beginning of the semester. So far, only the words from our fellow classmates, professor, and class speakers have given us any ability to comprehend the human feelings and opinions concerning the many facets of the Red Planet. With our trip to the cave, we were able to envision what our minds had only been able to conjure up for so many weeks prior. Not being a computer-minded person myself, the technology alone was overwhelming, but to also have the opportunity to explore (no pun intended) the site of my future profession was very exhilarating. I hope that in the coming months, the technology will improve enough to allow even better computer generated images to be seen. I can only imagine what it will be like if I am ever privileged enough to be employed by NASA.