Video: ‘Roving Mars’

Dec. 30, 2005 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Rovers star in Mars movie: For two years now, NASA's twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been the focus of scientific discoveries and rave reviews, books and TV shows — but they've never been able to take their turn in front of the camera, because essentially, they are the cameras.

In reality, we on Earth will never see the rovers plow through alien obstacles or ride into a Martian sunset — but thanks to some big-screen magic, we just might be able to see the nearly next best thing to being there in "Roving Mars," the Imax wide-screen movie on the rover mission due to premiere Jan. 27.

That premiere will come just after the second anniversary of Opportunity's landing on the Red Planet. Spirit enters its third year of operation even sooner, on Tuesday. And although chief rover scientist Steve Squyres warns that either rover could freeze up at any time, right now there's no reason why they couldn't keep rolling for months longer.

"The last three or four weeks with Spirit have been among the most scientifically productive I can imagine," the Cornell University astronomer told me by phone today from his home base in New York.

Opportunity has had to deal with more of the aches and pains of age — including a case of "Marthritis" in the robotic arm's shoulder joint, which is going to require that the robot travel with its arm deployed rather than stowed.

"We take it one day at a time," Squyres said. (For more on the real-life rovers, check out Squyres' "Mission Update" and NASA's Web site for the Mars missions.)

Squyres is looking forward to the big-screen movie as much as anyone: The Mars missions have already spawned a pair of TV documentaries as well as several books — including Squyres' own account of the mission , also titled "Roving Mars." But he thinks the movie will "tell the story very differently."

"The experience of sitting in your living room and watching a small screen, and seeing the tension and the drama of people's faces as we try to figure out why our rover is not working, is very different from the feeling of sitting in a theater with a screen that’s five stories high in front of you, and seeing Mars as if you are really there," Squyres said.

One big difference is that this time, the rover stays in the picture. Cornell graduate Dan Maas, the graphics whiz who put together the NASA visualizations for the rovers' descent and landing, helped insert computer-generated rovers in Imax-resolution views of Endurance Crater and other landmarks from the Mars missions.

"The rover moves around on Mars," Squyres said. "It's highly realistic, because Dan actually used pancam [panoramic camera] image data."

For that reason, Squyres said, "the rovers are the lead characters of the movie."

But this tale of two robots also includes a human factor: Although Squyres hasn't yet seen the finished film, he said it's "loosely based" on his book, which gets into the behind-the-scenes story of the Mars missions.

"The main characters in the story and the book are the rovers," he said, "but the heroes are the engineers here on Earth who figured out how to make it all happen against nearly impossible odds. ... One of the things that I tried to do in the book was not just try to tell the story of what happened once we got to Mars, but the very human story of the process of getting to Mars."

The Mars rover missions have truly turned into multimedia events, generating movies, TV shows and books as well as scientific data. The only way to top this would be to send back real-time, 3-D video from another planet, and Squyres noted that the cameras on NASA's next big rover, the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory , would have video capability.

Image: Squyres
Robert Galbraith  /  Reuters
Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars rover missions, describes the initial maneuvers of the Spirit rover on its landing platform in this photo from January 2004.
"Now, you've got to realize that things don't move very fast on Mars, so you can accomplish much the same thing by taking a series of still images," he said. "And we don't do much of that simply because of the bandwidth. Our bandwidth is really quite limited. On a really, really, really good day we might get 200 megabits [of data] back from Mars."

Even now, the rovers could theoretically take enough time-lapse photography to make for "a stunning video clip when you put it all together, but it would chew up so much bandwidth for very little scientific return that it's just not something we've done much of," Squyres said.

If NASA had a Mars-based telecommunications system capable of sending a live video stream back to Earth — perhaps using satellites such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter , which is due to enter orbit in March — that could put a whole new spin on multimedia space missions. But Squyres insisted that the science will always have to come first.

"You're always going to see missions directed first and foremost at what is going on scientifically, on whatever target NASA is studying," he said. "I think what's different about this mission is that our mission lends itself much more readily than most to a cinematic presentation. NASA does fantastic things in space, of all sorts: gamma-ray spectroscopy, cosmology. But it's hard to make an Imax movie about those things.

"This is a human-scale explorer on the surface of an alien world, seeing things that no one's ever seen before. That's the kind of story that can very readily be translated to a cinematic experience. So I think it's the nature of the mission that led to this, rather than this being the way all missions will be in the future."

I could imagine future robotic missions to the moon, Mars or other worlds providing enough image data to fuel some pretty cool virtual-reality tours, with headset-equipped customers tromping through a computer-generated, 3-D landscape. Could you? Is that a ride you'd pay to take? Let me know what you think, and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback as we get closer to the "Roving Mars" premiere.

Dec. 30, 2005 | 6:30 p.m. ET
More greatest hits from 2005: The year-end hits in science and technology just keep on coming — and slopping over into 2006 if necessary. For example, the next installment of "Nova ScienceNOW," premiering on PBS stations on Jan. 10, reviews the scientific highlights of the past year and gives special treatment to the discovery of the "10th planet," the stem cell controversy, the worries over bird flu, the links between climate change and hurricane intensity and the renewed sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Meanwhile, the American Anthropological Association has listed its top anthropology news stories of 2005, leading with the debate over intelligent design and the cultural impact of natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Other top stories include the culture war over who defines when life begins and ends; the looting of artifacts and antiquities worldwide, and their their recovery ; the discovery of a gene linked to skin pigmentation ; the continuing debate over Indonesian "Hobbit" fossils ; and the recent findings on human migration to northern Europe .

In addition to our own year-end roundup of science-related controversies and the online year-enders we mentioned earlier this week, there are these other entrants in the hit parade for 2005:

Dec. 30, 2005 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Happy new year! I know, I know, I've just gotten back into the office and now it's time to take another couple of days off. There's just one more bit of unfinished business before I sign off for 2005: the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club selection for December. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that just might be found at a good used-book store or your local library.

With movies such as "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and books such as "Warped Passages" and "Hiding in the Mirror," this has been a big year for hidden dimensions in popular culture — and I'm tempted to go with Edwin Abbott's "Flatland," an enchanting extradimensional fable that's freely available online. We could also turn to C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" chronicles in honor of the movie. But instead, I'll give the nod this time to "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle, a time-travel tale that has a flavor of spirituality as well as extradimensional physics. There's even a Disney DVD based on the book.

If a "Wrinkle" doesn't suit your fancy, follow the links above to explore other recommendations for end-of-the-year reading. Here's hoping your time slip from 2005 to 2006 goes well: Next year, let's do the time warp again.

Dec. 30, 2005 | Updated 10:10 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Guardian: The man with the perfect memory
The Nation: Brave neuro world (via 3 Quarks Daily)
National Geographic: Fairy-tale physics explained
IOP: Get the inside story about physics in medicine
SpaceWeather.com: Explore the aurora mega-gallery

Dec. 27, 2005 | 6:25 p.m. ET
Hit parade for 2005: The tug of war over evolution, a perfect landing on Titan and NASA's re-return to flight are the top topics on the agenda for space and science, according to an unscientific sampling of MSNBC.com users.

The sociopolitical debate over evolutionary theory and intelligent design was rated as the past year's top science-related controversy even before last week's landmark federal ruling on evolution in education, and the fact that the journal Science rated advances in evolutionary biology as its "Breakthrough of the Year" solidified the subject's position on this year's hit parade.

When it came to subjects on the final frontier, our users saw last January's touchdown on Titan by the European Huygens probe as the top space story of 2005 — somewhat downplaying NASA's return to flight. But looking ahead to next year, users gave the No. 1 spot on the "space trends to watch" list to the issues surrounding the shuttle Discovery's next flight and the future for NASA's human spaceflight effort.

There were just a few write-in votes this year — calling additional attention to the late-breaking stem cell controversy, or bemoaning the Hubble Space Telescope's uncertain fate . "The Hubble Telescope is very important to view stars and planets and all the other cosmic features existing in our solar system," wrote M. Hill. "I cannot understand why Bush wants to destroy the Hubble Telescope."

To be fair, it's not President Bush's intent to doom Hubble. But getting the shuttle fleet back up to speed is a prerequisite for servicing the space telescope. In a recent interview published by Spaceflight Now, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin says fixing Hubble is the "highest-priority utilization of a single shuttle mission that I can conceive," and plans are being laid for a repair mission in the 2007-2008 time frame. Will all the puzzle pieces fall into place in time? Stay tuned.

The past week was prime time for science-and-technology "hit parades." I've already linked to Discover magazine's roundup, and here's additional food for thought at year's end:

Dec. 27, 2005 | 6:25 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Testing Einstein's strangest theory
Discovery.com: Electronics stretch out
Globe and Mail: Creating the first synthetic life form
Science News: A cabinet of mathematical curiosities

Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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