The Landing Help (page 3)
The Mars lander, the Eagle , awaits. You’re not eager to get inside its cramped cabin and endure weightlessness, even for a short while. The artificial-gravity wheel on the Valiant has been slowing down gradually since you left Venus, where the gravitational pull is nearly equal to that of Earth. The shock of weightlessness nevertheless will be unpleasant; you have never tolerated it well.
Finding A Spot
Your first question, naturally enough, is “Where will we land?”
The first officer responds, “The best places, in my experience, are the calderas (craters) of old Martian volcanoes. While some of the volcanoes on Mars might still erupt from time to time, none are active at the moment. If a volcanic eruption were imminent, there would be signs, just as there are on Earth.”
“What kinds of signs?” you wonder.
“We have seismometers in all the landing-site calderas,” says the first officer. “The one we will be visiting today is called Pavonis Mons . This means “Peacock Mountain.” It lies almost exactly on the Martian equator. It happens to be only a few days past the Martian vernal equinox, so the Sun will rise directly in the east, follow a course right up to the zenith, and then set in the west, 12 Mars hours later.”
“A Mars hour is . . .”
“About 62 Earth minutes,” says the first officer. “We have decided to divide the Mars day up into 24 hours according to the Sun, just as is done on Earth. You won’t notice any difference between Mars time and Earth time. We have special wristwatches with quartz oscillators aligned so that they function according to Mars time. Here.” He hands you a watch. You strap it on over your pressure suit.
The descent proceeds smoothly enough. A huge crater yawns beneath the Eagle . “I don’t like this,” you say. You have visions of an impromptu Vesuvius or Krakatoa eruption replay, with the Eagle as part of the volcano’s ejecta. “No need to worry,” says the first officer. “If there is any sign of trouble, which is less likely than getting hit by a bolt of lightning on Earth, we’ll be out of here. We have rehearsed all kinds of emergency evacuation scenarios.”
It is almost sunset as the Eagle touches down. At the last moment before touchdown, the Sun vanishes beneath the rim of the crater. The sky above is pink where the Sun was, magenta all around, fading to deep purple and finally to black at the zenith. You think that you see a tiny white dot moving down toward the eastern horizon. “Is that Phobos?” you ask.
“No,” the first officer says, “That is our main ship.”
The Martian Night
The outside temperature is –40°C, which happens also to be –40°F, at sunset. The thermometer plummets fast. It will drop down to –90°C, or –130°F, in the predawn hours.
“That’s colder than it ever gets in Antarctica,” you say.
“And the thin air, if you could stand outside and not die from the lack of pressure, would make it seem even colder than that.”
“I can’t imagine –130°F, no matter what the pressure,” you say.
“Think of the worst possible arctic blizzard, with the temperature far below zero and the wind roaring like a hurricane. Then imagine getting into a swim suit and going outside and just standing there.”
“I get the idea.”
“At the poles during the Martian winter, it can get quite a lot colder even than that,” says the first officer.
“It is beyond my comprehension.”
“Now we need to get some sleep,” says the first officer.
“In this cramped little vessel?” you ask.
“Well, not out there on the Martian desert sand. If you want to stay awake all night, go ahead, but don’t keep me up.” He nods his head and begins to doze off. All you can do is peer out the window and try to see if you recognize any constellations. You think you see Orion, tilted nearly on its side, hovering low in the eastern sky.
Then you, too, fall asleep. You wake up to sunshine on your face after what seemed like only a few seconds.
“The dreamless sleep of space explorers,” says the first officer. “And now we will perform the little test for which we came.”
The Mars utility vehicle (MUV) reminds you of pictures you saw of the very first Moon rovers in the Apollo missions of the mid-twentieth century. And in fact, the two are quite similar.
“What’s that?” you ask as the first officer unfolds a huge, gossamer-thin, butterfly-like sheet of material.
“A kite,” he says.
“A kite! How will that fly here?”
“It is a windy day, or hadn’t you noticed?”
You get into the MUV with the first officer. Then you feel a tug on your pressure suit and hear a whisper against the side of your helmet. “That’s a little bit of breeze.”
“A 20-meter-per-second breeze,” says the first officer. “Or, in old-fashioned terms, a good 45-mile-an-hour gale. Look over that way.” He points toward the southern rim of the caldera. Then you see plumes of pink dust rushing along from east to west.
“Is this wind enough to fly that kite?” you ask.
“More than enough,” says the first officer. “We’ll get away from the Eagle and then try to communicate with some other explorers that happen to be on the far side of the planet right now. This kite will support an antenna. A long-wire antenna, just like the first radio experimenters used around the year 1900 to see if they could send their signals across the Earth’s Atlantic Ocean.”
“Why can’t we do this experiment from the Eagle ? I feel nervous out here with nothing but a pressure suit for protection.”
“That feeling is normal,” says the first officer. “All astronauts, or nearly all, get the same feeling when they go on their first roves away from a space vehicle. It’s like free diving in the middle of a big lake or in the ocean. That’s not the same thing as paddling around in a swimming tank.”
“But why do we have to be all the way out here in the middle of nowhere just to test a radio?” you ask.
“There would be too much radio noise near the Eagle . Electromagnetic interference. All the Eagle’s computers and instruments generate electromagnetic noise. This is a sensitive little radio. It operates at a very low frequency, just 2 kHz, where the waves travel in contact with the surface of the planet,” says the first officer. “Here. You drive the MUV.”
“Two kilohertz! That’s audible sound!”
“It would be if we connected a speaker to the transmitter output rather than an antenna,” says the first officer.
You drive the MUV along toward the great plumes of pink. It’s like riding in a golf cart, except faster and with a slower but more exaggerated rolling motion. Red Martian rocks and boulders litter the floor of the caldera, stretching away in all directions as far as you can see. After about 20 minutes, the first officer says, “We stop here.”
He unreels the antenna line, a thin aluminum wire, and the delta-wing kite sails upward. “Don’t try this at home,” says the first officer.
“Static electricity can build up, even on a clear day, and reach dangerous levels. I’ve got a couple of scars to show you exactly what it can do.”
“Can’t the same thing happen here?” you ask.
“Yes,” says the first officer. “But our pressure suits are metal-coated to protect against the solar wind and the ultraviolet. That also will discharge any . . . “
At that moment a spark jumps from the kite line to the first officer’s sleeve and from his ankle to the ground. You can’t hear it because of your protective headgear and because the Martian atmosphere is so thin, but you can imagine the “Pop!” it would make back home on Earth.
“Why must you use such low frequencies?”
“Higher frequencies require an ionosphere, or else artificial satellites, to propagate over the horizon. However, very low frequency (VLF) radio waves do not, at least not on a planet that can conduct electricity to any significant extent,” says the first officer. “Mars, according to our data, should conduct well enough to allow VLF waves to travel all the way around the planet.” He pulls out a sheet of paper from the pocket of his pressure suit and hands it to you. “Please see Fig. 6-6.”
“Interesting,” you say. “Primitive but interesting.”
“This MUV rolls on wheels, and they are more primitive than this antenna.”
“That’s a good point,” you say.
“That’s high enough,” says the first officer. The kite is now a tiny triangle against the sky, almost straight overhead. “Two and a half kilometers up.”
The radio tests are conducted. The radio itself is a small, battery-powered box with an old-fashioned telegraph key. The first officer taps on the key, then listens, then taps some more, then listens some more.
“Well?” you ask.
“Negative,” he says.”
“Is it supposed to work?”
“In theory, yes, if we have enough transmitter power and a long enough antenna.”
“Has anyone ever done this before?” you ask.
“Not successfully,” says the first officer. “Not from such a vast distance.”
“Why can’t you use communications satellites? Why this old-fashioned stuff?”
“We can use satellites once they are up and working. This is only an experiment. If we can ever get this type of communications system to work, explorers to the moons of the outer planets and someday to worlds beyond our Solar System might use it for communication before any satellites are launched.”
A Hasty Retreat
The first officer spends the next 2 hours verifying that the people on the opposite side of the planet actually have been testing their radio, then testing some more, and even trying a couple of different frequencies. All the results are negative.
The Sun is near the zenith in a sky that has become a uniform pinkish orange when the first officer says, “Time to pack up and head on back to the Eagle . We’ll be taking off early. There’s no time to lose.”
“What’s the hurry?” you ask.
“Do you see all the dust in the sky?”
“Yes. Isn’t that normal?”
“No. We have reports from the Valiant , as well as from general observation stations, that a planetwide dust storm might be brewing. We must get off the surface soon, before the winds aloft get so strong that we can’t get back to the Valiant at all,” says the first officer.
“I was just starting to feel safe down here,” you say.
“My friend, we are on the planet Mars. We are millions of kilometers from Earth and within real-time communications range of only a few other human beings in the entire Universe. The pressure outside your suit is so low that you wouldn’t stay conscious for 3 minutes without it. The temperature right now is –40°C, which happens also to be –40°F. However, the wind chill is much colder. It is hard to say whether you would die of suffocation or exposure if your pressure suit failed. There are several weak links in the chain that is keeping us alive. We must be certain that not a single one of those links is allowed to break. A full-Mars storm can last for months. By the end of it, links would not only be missing, but the whole chain would be gone.”
“So this means . . .”
“It means a total change of plan. I am going to make sure we get off of this planet as soon as possible. Premature termination of mission,” says the first officer.
You ask, “Didn’t you know about the impending storm before you decided to bring us down here?”
“No. There were no signs of a storm when we left the Valiant . At least, none that we yet have the ability to detect. This storm developed suddenly.”
“It’s as if a hurricane formed out of a clear blue sky in a single day,” you say. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“You speak of Earth,” says the first officer. “This is Mars.”
You ride the MUV back to the Eagle . Mars, which smiled in the morning, scowls now. The horizon has become brown as the Eagle rises from the surface. The winds begin to buffet the craft.
“Don’t crash,” you say.
“Don’t worry,” says the first officer. “I am well trained.”
Within seconds the Eagle has cleared the dust, which for now is confined to the first 200 or 300 meters above the floor of the caldera. The crater rim and the slopes of Pavonis Mons are in the clear, but the crater floor is an obscure mass, as if bathed in smog. “If the storm becomes intense enough, these dust clouds will be kicked up high into the atmosphere, possibly covering the entire mountain below us. In the extreme, the dust might obliterate all surface features, ascending several kilometers into the sky,” says the first officer.
“You say you cannot forecast the severity of the storm?” you ask.
“Weather forecasting on Mars is an inexact science, to say the least,” says the first officer. “Have you ever heard of the butterfly effect ?”
“Yes, that’s the principle that deals with large, long-term consequences arising from small causes.”
“If the butterfly takes off from Olympus Mons, the storm will cover the southern hemisphere. If the butterfly takes off from Pavonis Mons, the storm will cover the northern hemisphere. However, if the butterfly takes off from the Huygens Crater, the storm will envelop the entire planet.”
“You are joking, of course,” you say.
“Of course,” says the first officer. “But the principle is clear, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but there is one flaw in that theory.”
“There are no butterflies on Mars.”
“I know what you mean anyway.”
“The butterfly effect is the reason we have no way of knowing for certain how extensive this particular storm will be. Martian weather, it seems, is more sensitive than Earth weather.”
“Maybe the whole Martian ecosystem, such as it is, is more sensitive than that of the Earth,” you say.
“We don’t know until we test it. There are people back home who want to try to change the climate of Mars. Make a new world out of it. Try to get plants, or at least some sort of lichens, to grow. Maybe even try mold spores, bacteria, viruses. Anything. Anything that might change this planet into a world that humans can exploit,” says the first officer.
“Do you think humanity will ever make a livable planet out of Mars?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s not a scientific answer,” you say.
“I prefer to let certain mysteries remain mysteries,” says the first officer. “I don’t think we humans are ready to make a planet of our own.”
“Time will tell,” you say.
“Time always tells,” says the first officer.
Practice problems of this concept can be found at: Mars Practice Problems
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