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The Mars mystique

After 50 years of missions to Mars, scientists are unlocking some of the mysteries surrounding a planet that has captivated mankind for millenniums. Will ­humans ever leave a boot print on Mars?

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A self-portrait of NASA's Mars exploration rover, 'Spirit,' in 2006. This is the cover story in the Jan. 14 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Cal Tech/Cornell/Arizona State

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The mood among mission controllers was subdued. Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in the foothills of southern California's San Gabriel Mountains, were worried about the landing of their spacecraft on Mars.

With good reason.

Three months earlier, in September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter had arrived at the red planet, only to burn up in the atmosphere instead of taking up its intended orbit. Now, on Dec. 3, NASA officials were nervous about the fate of the Mars Polar Lander as it approached the planet, even though they had taken all the precautions they could to prevent a similar mishap.

"The tension was palpable," recalls Scott Hubbard, then a deputy director at NASA's Ames Research Center Laboratory, who was at the event. "Everyone was on edge."

Their anxiety turned out to be prophetic. When the $110 million lander finally touched down on the planet, it did so with all the subtlety of Wile E. Coyote's anvil falling off the cliff. Investigators later posited that the most likely cause was a bogus "I've landed" signal sent to the computerized flight-control system when, in fact, the lander was still 131 feet up. It had deployed its legs as planned. But that triggered an errant signal that caused the landing rockets to shut down prematurely, leaving the craft to crash into Mars at about 50 miles per hour. Controllers were never able to make contact with the lander or the two probes it ferried.

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