Exploring Mars online

Mars has become a bit more prominent lately - both in the news and in the sky. In late August, the orbit of our nearest neighbor and closest kin will bring it nearer to Earth than it has been in more than 50,000 years. (Different sites quote different numbers, but it's almost certainly further back that you can remember.) This rare proximity has prompted the launch of several interplanetary missions, and will have millions around the world spending at least a little more of their time searching the night sky - and since coverage of events like this can actually be easier to follow on the Web than through traditional media, this week's review offers a selection of official -and unofficial- sites related to the Red Planet.

Created to introduce the recently launched Mars Rover Missions (due to land in January 2004), Destination Mars uses Flash programming, high quality images, navigational sound effects, and some tech-appropriate background music to create an attractive information package - though the content is surprisingly limited. First up is Quick Facts, which provides side-by-side comparisons of Earth and Mars regarding such measurements as length of year, planetary diameter, and temperature - with more details on each relationship available at the click of a mouse. (And while Mars' mean temperature of -81 degrees Fahrenheit might intimidate some site visitors, it is a dry cold.) Other subjects include a brief rundown of the Rover missions and technologies involved, while Exploring Mars briefly deals with such topics as "Why We Go," and "People On Mars." Throughout the visit, a countdown clock tracks the time left until the anticipated touchdown of the first Rover lander.

If you're interested in a more thorough summary of NASA's operations, the Mars Exploration site offers much more information - and in a more conventional package. Mission goals, launch and landing diagrams, and images depicting the Rovers' current location on their way to Mars -- updated every ten minutes -- are available, as is information on past, current, and future missions to the fourth planet (beginning in 1963 with the Mariner spacecraft). As is typical of NASA productions, there is a large collection of still images and videos, and for the international ingredient, Mars Exploration also holds details about the Mars Express mission - launched by the European Space Agency, carrying the British-made Beagle 2 Lander. With subsites for kids, students and teachers, there's even a section on the place of Mars in Pop Culture - including what some consider the world's worst science fiction film, "Mars Needs Women." (You can also find a more complete listing of Mars as portrayed in 'Terran' media at Mars In the Mind of Earth.) For the Earth-bound who may not know where to look this August, Space.com's Where is Mars now? has a collection of maps, charts and even picture-taking tips (though don't expect anything like the images at the NASA sites), while Mars Today offers one-stop shopping for any news related to the Red Planet.

And what if we eventually visit Mars with something other than robots? In that case, home away from home might end up looking like the virtual habitat at exploreMarsnow. Nexterra, an organization trying to reignite interest in the human exploration of space, has taken lessons learned from simulations on Earth, along with research and conjecture from around the world, and created the theoretical components of a six-member, 30-month mission to Mars (departing, 2017), with special emphasis on an indoor/outdoor representation of the planet's first human dwelling.

Highlights include exterior explorations of the greenhouse and the crew-carrying Rover, and such interiors as the lab, galley, and medical areas (along with floor plans to help keep the cramped views in context). More than a simple visual tour, the site also provides specifics about components ranging from airlock dust extractors to specially designed "Mars Chairs" - and future additions to the site will include the ability to 'drive' the Rover to actual locations on the Martian surface.

While exploreMarsnow is certainly graphics-rich, the download times are quite reasonable with a dial-up connection. A more troubling phenomenon deals with Web standards, or lack thereof. While scenes load and objects highlight normally using Macintosh Netscape 7 (a very Web-standards-compliant browser), many of the navigation options are non-functional. (Very troubling when I found myself trapped in the airlock.) The same sections operated normally using Explorer, and an older, less standards-compliant version of Netscape, which makes the ironic point that sometimes, using the latest technology can work against you. (Here's hoping for more thorough testing before liftoff.)

In the meantime, look up. Look waaaay up.

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