Danger! Danger! wIll Robinson
Two robots on one red planet
sojourner rover Although Sojourner -- the only all-terrain vehicle on Mars -- is getting most of the publicity, the lander that brought Sojourner to Mars has its own "intelligence." Again, much of the impetus is the radio delay which grew as Pathfinder soared ever further from Earth. "We only 'spoke' with it three times a week during flight," says Stolper, meaning the spaceship relied essentially on its own devices during the seven-month flight.

When Pathfinder detected problems, Stolper says, it was programmed to "shut down non-essential power draws, whatever could be causing the trouble, closing valves or getting it into an attitude that would be safe." In the shut-down condition, it would radio Earth and ask for advice.

Did you know that Pathfinder's colleague is approaching the Red Planet? Mars Global Surveyor is part of a long-term NASA Mars project. The mission list is here. Surveyor is crammed with cameras and two instruments designed to answer questions raised by the Viking landers, which set "foot" on Mars in 1976. Here are some basic stats on the little red planet.

Who goes there?
The triumph of Pathfinder has been especially welcome in the midst of troubles at Mir, Russia's doddering space station, where fire, collision, and now a commander's erratic heartbeat have raised hackles, eyebrows (and for all we know, insurance rates).

All of which raises a question: What's better in space: humans or robots? NASA's answer is "both" -- it funds not only the expensive, manned, International Space Station, but also Pathfinder, with its reliable robots, and even a "telerobotics" office, mainly devoted to developing robots to service the space station.

But scientists who have seen NASA slash their budgets in favor of the space station say robots are the faster, cheaper and better alternative. For a taste of the argument, see "The Right Machine..." in the bibliography.

Down on earth, robots could help volcanologists sample gases inside active volcanic craters, a task that caused the death of eight scientists in 1993. Robotic explorers, including Dante II, which trundled into an active Aleutian volcano in 1994, are a lot safer.

Did you know that The Why Files covered volcanoes?

Think driving on Mars would be tough? Heard about traffic in San Diego?

The Why Files
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