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The Little Spaceship That Could May End A Heroic Career

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NASA headquarters in Washington and the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California communicated to this Blogcritics author today, 21 November, that the Mars Global Surveyor – that "little spaceship that could" – may be ending its heroic career. Surveyor lasted the longest and sent back the most information of any craft sent to Mars.

If it cannot be found and contacted with commands that would, perhaps, make it functional again; it will still have made a grand contribution to our knowledge of the red planet and it will still have given us all a model of perseverance and valor in the service of man's knowledge.

"Mars Global Surveyor has surpassed all expectations," said Michael
Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration at NASA
Headquarters, Washington. "It has already been the most productive
science mission to Mars, and it will yield more discoveries as the
treasury of observations it has made continues to be analyzed for
years to come." Its camera has returned more than 240,000 images to

Fuk Li, the Mars Exploration Manager at JPL, said today that efforts have been, and will continue to be, made to contact Surveyor but that "Realistically, we have run through the most likely possibilities for re-establishing communication, and we are facing the likelihood that the amazing flow of scientific observations from Mars Global Surveyor

is over."

However, he went on to promise "… We are not giving up hope."

Even if Surveyor remains silent in the cold of space, lit by the pale, red light of its new home, Tom Thorpe, the Project Manager for the Mars Global Surveyor, listed the immense effort the little spaceship made during its 10 year sojourn alone in space. He eulogized the craft with this description: "It is an extraordinary machine that has done things the designers never envisioned despite a broken wing, a failed gyro and a worn-out reaction wheel. The builders and operating staff can be proud of their legacy of scientific discoveries and key support for subsequent missions."

Surveyor helped pick out landing places for both NASA rovers that landed in 2004 and helped to choose places for Phoenix and Mars Science Lab missions in the future. It was used as a relay for the rovers and helped by mapping the areas around them and watched atmospheric conditions as the newer orbiter spacecraft slowed to their orbital speeds around the planet.

The JPL navigators for the little spacecraft that showed such spunk for so long point out the major discoveries – among many – that it made during its ten year career as pathfinder for the recent Mars exploring spacecraft and visits by the Rover robot cars.

Surveyor found gullies that had been cut into slopes. The slopes were not part of craters which means they are young (on a planetary scale) which scientists assume indicates liquid water in basically modern time.

Surveyor located a hematite region for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity to land. Hematite is a mineral "that often forms under wet conditions." It also used its laser altimeter to make a global topographic map of Mars. It showed many highly eroded craters that hadn't been seen before and made maps of canyons in the polar ice caps. Its magnetometer found out that Mars had a global magnetic field like that of Earth. The field protects Earth from too many cosmic rays.

Surveyor photographed an area that seems like an ancient river delta from water flowing over the surface during a long period of time long ago. The fact that Surveyor survived so long as a functioning robot spacecraft allowed it to record planetary changes, such as CO2 ice near the South Pole changing size over a period of 3 years, an indication that there are climate changes on what was called a "dead planet".

The report on Surveyor's hopes and accomplishments was thanks to Erica Hupp and Dwayne Brown at NASA headquarters in Washington and Guy Webster at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. A mission overview with links to galleries of Surveyor photos, a slide show and other multi-media links offers a better look at the little spaceships life and accomplishments.

Students, kids and teachers should note that the NASA Home Page has numerous galleries, links, videos and the ability to join "My NASA" to collect interesting stuff.

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  • I bow my head in respect for this brave and sturdy little mission craft. Indeed a worthy investment.