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Roving Mars IMAX Movie

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Roving Mars Movie
The Chicago Astronomers Preview the IMAX film "Roving Mars"

The Chicago Astronomers were invited to a special pre-screening on the 26th of January at Chicago's Navy Pier IMAX Theater.

The following is a brief account and review of the Disney movie...

The film starts out with Earth based clean rooms, assembling and testing the Rovers. Trial runs on Martian-like terrain and meticulous prep of the machines. Each rover has a personality, character and unique attitudes. The project leaders learn to adjust to their ways and accommodate. We examine their "eyes and feet" and they seem almost alive with a personality of their own.

Considering the abrasive nature of the Martian soil, I'm surprised the wheels have not worn down, or the gears loaded with grit by now! They practice "driving" the rovers over Mars-like terrain, wheels grinding over rock, plodding through find sand and it does what is asked of them nicely.

(I thought that too much time was spent in the JPL laboratories with the project scientists. Nice to know and see, but the sequence is not IMAX caliber and we saw this on the PBS special last year anyway. Time I felt was wasted here and it took time away from the grandeur of the IMAX potential of the surface exploration of Mars.)

The real prize and grabber of this movie is when the narrator goes mute and silent...and finally - the focus is on the liftoff sequence of the launch vehicle carrying the first Rover/orbiter. We eagerly watch as the main engines spark with a high pitched "twing" and ignite with a great release of energy. The roar of the engines shakes up the theater and we feel the thunder in our seats! I smile as the beast comes to life... belching out fire and smoke...clearing the gantry in just a couple of blinks of the eye.

Simulated cameras follow the rocket as it pierces the skies above Florida, screaming with speed and gulping propellant by the ton. We follow as it goes through the sequence of jettisoning and igniting booster stages one after another, placing it in higher Earth orbit...and finally, with precise coordination of small explosives and gyro rockets putting a spin on the payload...it leaves the grasp of earth's gravity and literally silently coasts almost all the way to Mars.

We hear all of the clicks, bangs and engines in this marvelous sequence of events. Granted, in the vacuum of space it's deathly silent, but it adds to the drama...and we like it.

As it approaches the Martian atmosphere, pre-programmed automation kicks in and we trail along with the lander as it prepares to land. We watch with glee as it blazes through the alien atmosphere, kicking off the heat shield, deploying parachutes and retro rockets firing briefly.

And like a car airbag or angry puffer fish, it suddenly and explosively inflates the landing bags protectively surrounding the rover, free falls for a bit and bounces along the Martian surface, almost forever...finally coming to rest in Gusev crater. Then after all the noise, rockets, s****ing and aerobraking noise.... it's quiet, very quiet. We are on the surface of Mars...alone with the rover. After a systems check, it unfolds like petals on a flower and we see that it has brilliantly survived the sojourn right side up and apparently in good condition.

Mission control now has the job of finding out if the machine survived an autonomous landing...and after a long pause...they finally rejoice in receiving a signal from the rover. The film then follows the rover in very good computer simulated sequence, the unfolding of the solar panels as it stretches and comes to life. Unfolding the arm from under it's "chest" the machine takes a first careful footing as it starts rolling off the platform. It begins its incredible exploration, showing us its tools of exploration and locomotion. We examine along with the Rovers the evidence of past surface water, zooming onto the hematite's (blueberries), strewn about all over the place.

We travel along with both rovers for a while, observing rock outcrops, stopping once in while to examine something of interest with the on-board microscope and looking toward the horizon- seeking the next goal to reach. It ends by saying that one day the rovers will go to sleep, and due to wear and tear, dust on the solar panels and intense Martian cold...they will simple not wake up one morning and fade away. Quite sad really, considering that they are still alive, viable and rolling on Mars right now...way beyond their expected lifespan. Just too cool!...

Then the film is over.

It took a couple of moments to reflect on what we just saw, and the audience applauded with gratitude of the experience. Some who I spoke with after said it was almost a religious experience, as these little machines did all that it was asked of them. And practically with hands-off real time commands. In that we humans with all our frailty and incompetence, put aside that for a moment, and created this marvel of exploration...and extention of ourselves, and it worked...it really worked!


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