From The Martian Chronicles to the War of the Worlds, science fiction has often imagined Mars as a place of intelligent extra-terrestrial life. Historically, astronomers have also displayed interest in our planetary neighbor, and in the late nineteenth-century, used empirical information to speculate on the possibility of life-sustaining conditions there. More recently, Cornell astronomers and engineers have been involved in large-scale research missions to determine the atmospheric and geological conditions on the red planet through the use of extremely sophisticated robotic equipment.
Robotic explorations of Mars began as early as 1971, with the Soviet Union’s Mars 2 and 3 missions, both of which failed. In 1997, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched the Mars Pathfinder mission that briefly functioned on the surface of Mars, and named the landing site in honor of Carl Sagan. In 2003, NASA launched two robotic exploration rovers (“Spirit” and “Opportunity”) on a mission to study the planet and gather clues that would determine whether or not there has been water on Mars. The original rovers proved exceptionally durable, sending many years’ worth of photographic evidence about surface conditions on Mars. “Opportunity” continues to this day to function. NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has benefited from leadership by two Cornell faculty members: Professor Stephen Squyres, and James (Jim) Bell III, with the assistance of the Cornell Mars Exploration Rover Team.
A student of Carl Sagan’s, Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy Steve Squyres ’78, Ph.D. ’81, was awarded the 2009 Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society “for his work making the Mars Exploration Rover mission a compelling saga for millions of people.” Jim Bell is president of the Planetary Society’s Board of Directors and a recipient of the 2011 Carl Sagan Medal. His Postcards from Mars (2006) was an extremely popular collection of images of Martian terrain taken by rovers.