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The Lewis and Clark of Mars

Two scientists have spent the last decade exploring the Red Planet a few feet at a time, poring over 250,000 pictures from the Global Surveyor.

June 29, 2007|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

THE ruddy surface of the alien world unraveled before Ken Edgett's eyes in noodle-like strips.

Each image from the camera aboard the Mars Global Surveyor covered a 2-mile-wide swath of dunes, rock valleys and jagged ribbons of carbon dioxide ice. Twelve orbits a day, for almost a decade. A total of 243,926 pictures of the Martian wasteland.

Edgett, a bushy-haired, 6-foot-2 scientist, stared himself half-blind as he scanned the pictures from his office in an industrial park outside San Diego. His companion through the years of surveying the planet was Mike Malin, the designer of the spacecraft camera and the president of Malin Space Science Systems Inc.

Together, they have studied more Martian craters, rock fields and mountains than any other earthling.

You might call them the Lewis and Clark of Mars.

Just as the early American adventurers explored the strange world west of the Mississippi River, Malin and Edgett have taken a journey of exploration across Mars. Instead of tramping through forests and valleys, they hitched a ride on a spacecraft.

Edgett has come to know Mars so well that you can show him a picture of a spot on the Red Planet and he can give you a good idea of where it is.

The two men are an unusual pair. Edgett, 41, gregarious and something of a cutup who loves slapstick movies, once ate a pig's foot in a futile attempt to win tickets to a Pink Floyd concert. On a children's TV show in Phoenix, he was "Ken the Science Guy."

Malin, 57, smaller and more reticent, is a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award winner and a former university professor.

"Collectively, they do some of the most meticulous science that I've seen," said Robert Pappalardo, a planetary expert at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

Through the laborious process of studying Mars meter by meter, they have changed the scientific world's perception of the dusty planet.

It is no longer a dead rock. Edgett and Malin have detailed a rich and complex world that may include the existence of some form of life.

"Besides Earth, Mars is once again the most exciting place in the solar system," said Caltech astronomer Bruce Murray.

Malin, true to form, is unimpressed with the implications of his own work.

"I don't actually think there is life on Mars," he said.

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A much earlier generation imagined Mars as a world with alien boatmen plying an intricate network of canals. American astronomer Percival Lowell began intently surveying the planet near the end of the 19th century. He imagined a dying civilization forced to build canals to survive the desiccation around them.

It was not until the mid-1960s, when a string of robotic missions to Mars began, that science began to catch up with fantasy.

Mariner 4 flew past Mars at close range in 1965. Viking 1 and 2 dropped onto the surface of the planet in 1976 to conduct a search for life.

"Cold, dry, rocky surface is what we saw around us," Dan McCleese, the chief scientist at JPL, said recently. "Viking led us to close the doors to further exploration. Nobody wanted to hear the 'life' word associated with Mars."

Mars was "self-sterilizing," scientists said. Solar radiation and the extreme dryness of the place made it a barren world. If there was ever life, it died out billions of years ago.

The search for interesting places fixed on Europa, the enigmatic ice-covered moon of Jupiter, and Titan, Saturn's smog-choked moon.

But for Edgett, Mars has been a fascinating place since he was a child growing up in Rochester, N.Y. He remembers looking out on the first snow of winter when he was 10 and wondering whether Mars was like that.

Malin had been exploring the cosmos since he was a graduate student in the 1970s at Caltech, studying planetary sciences and geology. Later, at JPL and Arizona State University, where he was a geology professor, he embraced the budding field of photogeology -- the study of geology through high-resolution imagery.

In 1990, Malin tossed away his promising academic career to start a company building cameras for NASA.

"I don't work well in large institutions," he explained. "I'm kind of a maverick."

His gamble nearly failed when the first camera his team built was lost with the Mars Observer spacecraft in 1993. He was lucky he had enough parts left over for a second camera when the Mars Global Surveyor mission came around four years later.

Not everyone was excited about the $247-million mission.

But as engineers prepared the new camera for launch aboard Global Surveyor, Malin made a crucial demand: It must resolve images as small as a meter, or 3.3 feet. No camera had ever reached that level of detail from orbit.

In the end, their camera and its 14-inch telescope, weighing just over 40 pounds, were safely on board when the spacecraft took off Nov. 7, 1996, on a mission to map the surface, measure the atmosphere and check for a magnetic field.

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IT took nearly a year for Global Surveyor to reach Mars.

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