Broadcast: October 6, 2004
This is Steve Ember.
And this is Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we have a report about NASA’s two exploration vehicles on the surface of Mars. We also tell about a very successful satellite that is orbiting Mars. We begin with a report about SpaceShipOne. The privately owned spacecraft won a ten million dollar prize by flying into space two times in six days.
Thousands of people gathered near the little town of Mojave, California Monday. They watched as a privately built rocket plane made its second successful flight into space.
The rocket plane is called SpaceShipOne. The Scaled Composites Company of California built it. Aviation designer Burt Rutan (roo-TAN) designed the spacecraft and organized the project. Mister Rutan is already famous for designing and building the first airplane to fly around the world without stopping for fuel.
An aircraft called the White Knight carried the smaller SpaceShipOne to an altitude of fifteen kilometers. It then released SpaceShipOne. Mike Melvill flew the White Knight aircraft. He was the earlier pilot on SpaceShipOne. Brian Binnie was the second pilot to fly Space Ship One. After the White Knight released SpaceShipOne, pilot Binnie fired the rockets that gave it the power needed to reach space. Space Ship One was designed to reach sub-orbital space. This is just below the area where a spacecraft would enter an orbit around the Earth. SpaceShipOne flew to a height of more than one hundred twelve kilometers above the Earth.
Brian Binnie became only the second private citizen to successfully fly into space. He and Mike Melvill are now the only two private citizens who have flown as astronauts. About an hour after SpaceShipOne landed, it was announced that the spacecraft’s team had won the Ansari X prize of ten million dollars.
To win the Ansari X Prize, a spacecraft had to be built entirely with private money. It had to make two flights within fourteen days. Each flight had to reach a height of at least one hundred kilometers above the Earth.
This is the area where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins. The spacecraft also had to carry the pilot and the amount of weight that would equal two passengers.
The X Prize competition was organized to support space travel by private companies for private citizens. Reports say more than twenty-four different groups around the world planned or built spacecraft similar to Space Ship One. Each had hoped to win the X Prize.
Aircraft designer Burt Rutan’s Space Ship One made its first successful flight in June. It reached one hundred kilometers above the Earth.
It made a second flight on September twenty-ninth. Pilot Melvill was at the controls. That flight was the team’s first attempt to win the X Prize.
Businessman Paul Allen was among those in the large crowd who watched the flight on Monday. He is one of the founders of the Microsoft Company. Mister Allen helped pay for the SpaceShipOne project. Mister Allen says he spent more than twenty million dollars on the project. He says he has wanted to be part of space research since he was a small boy.
Richard Branson, who owns Virgin Airlines, was also there. He says he will buy several larger spacecraft from Mister Rutan. Mister Branson wants to start a business to take passengers into space. He says more than five thousand people have offered to pay for a seat on the first flights to space.
News of the flight of Space Ship One was also sent to the International Space Station. Astronaut Mike Fincke and Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka welcomed Astronaut Binnie into space. The International Space Station team said it was great to learn that for a while on Monday they were not the only people off the planet Earth.
For more than twelve days in September, NASA’s two exploration vehicles on the surface of Mars did not move. For most of that time the planet Mars passed nearly behind the Sun. This prevented good radio communications between NASA scientists here on Earth and the exploration vehicles.
The two vehicles were also passing through the worst part of the Martian winter. This meant there was little sunlight for the vehicles’ collection devices to change into electric power. Now, NASA reports Mars is no longer behind the sun. Both vehicles are again making the needed electric power from sunlight and have returned to work.
The two vehicles are named Spirit and Opportunity. They successfully completed their first three months of work in April. Now, they have completed another five months of work. Their main job is to search for evidence of water or water ice on the surface of Mars.
Andrew Dantzler is a top official at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. He says Spirit and Opportunity are continuing their work. Mister Dantzler says NASA is adding more support for the team here on Earth.
Jim Erickson is the project manager for both vehicles at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Mister Erickson says scientists had believed the two vehicles would have stopped doing any useful work by this time. However, he says neither vehicle shows any signs of problems. This is the second time NASA has extended the work period for the two vehicles.
Mister Erickson says NASA does not know how much longer the two vehicles will continue to do useful work. He says it could be days, weeks or several months. Mister Erickson says the exploration vehicle team will do their best to continue getting the best possible use from these very valuable scientific machines.
When Mars moved from behind the Sun, Spirit was near an area of the Martian surface called the Columbia Hills. This is more than three kilometers from its landing area.
Opportunity is inside a huge hole called Endurance Crater. It will explore an area of rock called Burns Cliff.
More than one hundred fifty exploration team members work with the two vehicles. However, they no longer all work together at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
The team members are now able to work at their home agencies in several states and in Europe. Special computer, video and sound equipment permit them to work together without being in the same building.
This reduces the cost of the project and permits scientists to spend more time at home with their families. Steve Squyres is a scientist with Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He is a top investigator working with Spirit and Opportunity. He says he can now explore Mars during the day and still go home at night to be with his family.
The Spirit and Opportunity research vehicles are not the only scientific instruments sending back important information about Mars. NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor satellite has recently started its third period of extended work.
The Mars Global Surveyor has been orbiting the planet for seven years. It has already sent back more than one hundred seventy thousand photographs of the Red Planet. NASA reports that it is sending back better pictures than ever because of new methods of photography.
The new photographs show three times the amount of detail as in the past. For example, one of the improved photographs shows the wheel marks left on the Martian surface by the exploration vehicle Spirit.
Ken Edgett is a scientist for the Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, California. Malin Space Science Systems built the Mars Orbiter Camera. Mister Edgett says the new method is very difficult and does not always result in a good picture. However, he says when it does, the results are extremely good.
NASA has placed more than twenty-four thousand new photographs taken by Mars Global Surveyor’s Orbiter Camera on the Internet computer communications system. You can see these photographs by going to www.msss.com.
This program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced by Mario Ritter. This is Steve Ember.
And this is Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program in VOA Special English.