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11:57 PM Fri, Sept. 21st

Local man shares his Mars Orbiter experience

PRESCOTT ­ This past weekend, one local member of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team breathed a sigh of relief.

After participating in several space missions that didn't go quite as planned (spacecraft blowing up, pictures coming back distorted, etc.), Prescott resident Phil James said he was glad to see the Orbiter's first successfully transmitted images.

NASA launched the Orbiter in August for a mission set to end December 2010. The mission, according to the Orbiter's Web site is to "search for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars Š for long enough to provide water for life."

James, a physicist and a co-investigator for this mission, said during a Wednesday interview that discovering life on Mars "would have a tremendous philosophical impact."

The discovery of life on Mars would lend credence to the evolution argument in the evolution-versus-creationism debate because it would show that life evolved on planets other than Earth.

Many scientists believe that life forms need liquid water for survival, James said, and some theorize that water, in liquid or frozen form, exists on Mars now, either above or below its surface.

Even if life did or does exist on Mars, it likely would take shape as "pretty basic, uncomplicated life forms," James said.

In the 1970s, James said, "When the Viking (another orbiter) originally went (to Mars), they thought they'd see little Martians or plants."

This past Friday, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter began orbiting Mars. At this point, that orbit still is very elliptical, but over the course of the next five months, scientists gradually will adjust it so that it becomes circular.

The spacecraft's three cameras and three scientific instruments began collecting data this past Friday and will continue to do so for the next two years.

As a co-investigator on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team, which operates at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Burbank, Calif., James said he is "responsible for running the cameras and making decisions about what we take pictures of. When the data come back, we're responsible for calibrating it and releasing it."

Specifically, James researches the planet's weather patterns, which he said are similar to Earth's.

"If you're going to send people to Mars, you'd like to know about the weather," he explained, adding that the frequent dust storms there could make study dangerous.

Also, whatever scientists learn about weather patterns on Mars, they're learning about those on Earth.

Along with determining whether life existed on Mars, the Orbiter's goals are to characterize the planet's climate and geology and prepare the planet for human exploration.

Although scientists most likely will travel to Mars one day, James said, it's unlikely that humans ever will live there ­ "the atmosphere is so thin your blood would boil. It's not a great place to move to."

Contact the reporter at hdartt@prescottaz.com