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Sound Bites From Mars

September 1, 1998

We all know what mars looks like close up: The burnt-orange, rubbled landscape is familiar, thanks to last year’s Pathfinder spacecraft photographs. But who knows what a day on Mars sounds like? Well, soon it will be possible to hear the sounds of Mars.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), working with scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, is placing a microphone aboard the Surveyor ‘98 Lander spacecraft, scheduled to launch in January for Mars and due to arrive the following fall. Once on Mars, the microphone, which is the size of a matchbox, is expected to record wind, sandstorms and the crackle of electrical discharges in the atmosphere.

Miniaturization made the microphone small enough and sufficiently power-stingy to meet NASA’s requirements. The entire device is 5 centimeters square and 1 centimeter thick, and weighs 56 grams. The project was completed for less than $100,000, paid for by the Planetary Society, a private organization advocating space exploration.

With telemetry time tight, researchers expect to relay a 10-second sound bite every third day during the month-long mission. And in a collection that could turn out to be a sort of “Mars’ Greatest Hits” the sounds will be posted on the Planetary Society’s Internet site: http:// planetary.org.

If the microphone records something particularly compelling, more elaborate devices might be sent. And someday the “greatest hits” may become a full symphony.

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