Spacecraft to carry library to Mars

( AP ) - When NASA's newest Mars lander departs Earth this weekend, it will be carrying the words and art of visionaries from Voltaire to Carl Sagan.

The "Visions of Mars" mini-disk secured to the lander will be the first library on Mars - a gift from past and present dreamers to possible future settlers.

"I'm glad you're there and I wish I was with you," Sagan said in a recording made for the mission before his 1996 death. An excerpt from his book "Cosmos" is also on board.

Other musings, in written and audio format, come from Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Percival Lowell and Kim Stanley Robinson.

"For any science fiction writer," Robinson said Friday on the eve of launch, "it's really a thrill." "Green Mars," the second novel in his classic trilogy, is on the disk.

The Phoenix Mars Lander was scheduled to blast off before sunrise Saturday aboard an unmanned rocket. Its journey to Mars will take nearly 10 months and cover 422 million miles.

NASA is aiming for a landing within Mars' Arctic Circle next May. The three-legged Phoenix is equipped with a long digger that will penetrate the red soil and underlying ice, and tiny ovens that will bake dirt and ice samples.

If any traces of organic compounds are found, it could indicate an environment conducive to life. Previous Mars missions have pointed to liquid water in the long-ago past, already raising the possibility of life.

That's what red planet enthusiasts have been envisioning for decades - life on Mars, both native and human. Robinson foresees permanent Martian colonies with hundreds and even thousands of people within 100 years, similar to the Antarctic stations.

"I believe in it. I think it's coming," Robinson said.

The Planetary Society's silica-glass DVD, just 3 inches in diameter, contains Asimov's "I'm in Marsport without Hilda" and "The Martian Way," Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles," Arthur C. Clarke's "Transit of Earth" and "The Sands of Mars," Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," Alexei Tolstoi's "Aelita," Voltaire's "Micromegas" and an excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut's "The Sirens of Titan."

The disk also includes 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli's report on Martian channels, or canals, and an excerpt from mathematician's Percival Lowell's follow-up treatise in 1908, "Mars as the Abode of Life." It maintained the canals were built by some form of intelligent life for irrigation.

In all, 84 written texts are on the disk, as well as 63 Mars-related works of art and three radio broadcasts, including the 1938 recreation of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" and the 1940 discussion between Wells and Orson Welles, who directed the panic-inducing drama. The disk also holds more than 250,000 names of Planetary Society members and others who submitted their names for the one-way ride.

"Science and science fiction have done a kind of dance over the last century, particularly with respect to Mars," Sagan, a co-founder of The Planetary Society, explained on the disk.

Attached to the top platform of the lander, the disk is designed to survive at least 500 years on the red planet's surface. Its label urges, "Attention Astronauts: Take This with You."

This is its second incarnation; the original "Visions of Mars" disk ended up at the bottom of the Pacific when Russia's Mars 96 spacecraft failed shortly after launch. The library was subsequently updated, but it stuck with technology from the early 1990s when the original was compiled.

In fact, only a few machines on Earth are capable of playing this somewhat antiquated disk, said Amir Alexander, a writer and editor with The Planetary Society. The group is hoping future settlers will have the advanced technology to handle the standard codes. "We have to count on that, we really do," Alexander said.

It's conceivable alien life could beat humans to the disk, under one of many science fiction scenarios.

Robinson noted there already might be life on Mars, albeit bacterial and nearly a mile beneath the surface. He recalled joking in his Mars trilogy about this civilization of little red people.

"You have to imagine a very, very miniaturized sentient civilization living underground and they, I suppose, could crawl up onto this disk and have it be like a gigantic flat room that they could wander around in and attempt to decode," he said. "In that sense, the aliens might already be there."

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