Web site offers a bird's eye view of Mars Lander program


As a lifelong fan of man's search for knowledge in outer space, I've followed the progress of many different manned and unmanned space programs.

As a youngster in the 1960s, I was stuck with morning and evening newspaper coverage, as well as whatever reports were carried by broadcast television and radio.

Today's youngsters have the benefit of the World Wide Web, where minute-by-minute updates are available on NASA's latest space project, the Mars Polar Lander, also known as the Mars Volatiles and Climate Surveyor.

The Polar Lander's goal is to study the climatic changes that have taken place on Mars. It's the closest in makeup to our own planet, and scientists believe it can help us better understand how our planet and solar system were formed.

A number of Web sites offer the latest information on the project. If it lands successfully, you can visit these sites for updates and photos during the project's 90-day mission on Mars.

• The main home page for the Mars Lander project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California has a plethora of information on the mission and its objectives. You can find out what the team's plans are, and how they'll deal with unexpected emergencies.

One of the more interesting things I found here was software you can download to command your own Mars Lander. WITS, the Web Interface for Telescience, allows you to create sequences to control your own simulated lander's robotic arm in realtime 3D. In fact, once the real Mars lander is up and running, you can download the commands sent to it and run them on your own simulator to see what JPL is asking the "real" Mars Lander to do.

Visit http://marslander.jpl.nasa.gov/ for some real out-of-this-world information.

• The Jet Propulsion Lab's Mars Educational site is an archive of information and activites aimed at children and teachers, K-12.

The really ambitious Mars program fans can download and print out templates to build their own 1/24th scale paper and cardboard model of the lander.

But the really incredible bit of information here for Mars watchers are the lithographs available for download in the Resources section of the site.

Images from the Viking Orbiters missions of the 1980s were recently stitched together by computer to form a mosaic image of Mars as it would appear while in orbit around it.

The view is incredible, with Mars' own massive canyon, Valles Marineris, stretching thousands of miles across its surface. a canyon system that is many times wider and deeper than our own Grand Canyon.

For more information, point your browser to http://marsnt3.jpl.nasa.gov/education/.

• If you're trying to visit the main JPL Web site and finding it slowed by heavy Web traffic, you can also visit www.marspolarlander.com. You'll find links to live information and a constant stream of updates.

The site is hosted by the UCLA, and offers a good overview of the experiments aboard the lander.

You can also read about the Mars Polar Lander's microphone experiment. The project was a dream of astronmer Carl Sagan, who first discussed the idea some 30 years ago.

• If Web congestion slows the other sites, you can also try visiting the Planetary Society's Web site at www.planetary.org, and the Mars Society's site at www.marssociety.com.

Each will be offering its own take on the mission, along with constant updates on the mission.

NO FREE LUNCH OR PC. If you signed up for a free PC at the Free-PC Web site as I did, then the wait is over -- but don't run to your mail box looking for a new computer.

Free-PC's goal was to give a free computer to people who qualified from within certain demographic groups. The computers used special software to display targeted advertising aimed specifically at the likes and wants of each user.

Free-PC was acquired recently by low-priced computer manufacturer Emachines, and no plans are apparently in the works to extend the Free-PC offer. Emachines will honor existing obligations of the Free-PC network, according to a Reuters story last week.

Mac enthusiasts should note that a free iMac distributer, www.FreeMac.com, has been unable to get inventory to distribute any of the promised free iMacs.

NET ACCESS REVISITED. Last week's column took a look at some of the free offers for ad-supported Internet access.

One that I overlooked managed to catch the eye of the Information Systems manager at work. He pointed out that FreeWweb.com offers free Internet access with local telephone numbers serving Elizabethtown, Campbellsville and other rural parts of the state outside Louisville and Lexington.

The site requires a credit card for age verification when signing up.

I haven't signed up for a trial run yet, but will have a review in the coming weeks in this column.

IE 5.5. Microsoft is continuing development of its Internet Explorer Web browser with plans to release a trial version of IE 5.5 soon.

The new browser will be part of Microsoft's next-generation operating system, and offer a print preview mode and improved support for Cascading Style Sheets and other Web display languages.

America Online's purchase of Netscape Communications seems to have helped delay the company's release of the much anticipated Netscape Communicator 5.

The most recent update of Communicator, version 4.7, added an e-commerce shopping button to the menu bar and other subtle improvements to the browser.

I've installed on my PC at home and work, and there's little different to my eye, besides the addition of a shopping bag icon in the top menu.

For more information on your browser of choice, visit http://home.netscape.com for info on Communicator 4.7, or www.microsoft.com/ie/ for details on the upcoming release of Internet Explorer.