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University of California-Berkeley


Mars Microphone, built at UC Berkeley and funded by the Planetary Society, Launched Jan. 3

By Susan Lendroth, Planetary Society

The Martian hills are alive with the sounds of ... what? Wind, sandstorms, lightning? No one yet knows what we may hear or even whether there will be sounds on Mars, but we may have the answer within one year.

On January 3, 1999, the Mars Polar Lander was launched, carrying the first microphone to the Red Planet. The Mars Microphone was developed for the Planetary Society by the University of California, Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory. It is flying aboard the Mars Polar Lander within a lidar instrument built by the Russian Space Research Institute (IKI).

The Mars Microphone is a milestone since it is the first scientific instrument funded by a public-interest organization to fly aboard a planetary mission. The microphone was funded by donations from Planetary Society members.

The lidar is also a milestone -- a milestone in cooperation between Russia and the United States since it will be the first Russian instrument to fly aboard a US planetary mission.

The idea of placing a microphone on Mars was suggested by Planetary Society President Carl Sagan several years ago. Sagan later wrote in a 1996 letter to NASA, "Even if only a few minutes of Martian sounds are recorded from this first experiment, the public interest will be high and the opportunity for scientific exploration real."

Louis Friedman, Executive Director of the Society, developed the means to implement the idea by working with the Russian lidar team, the University of California, Berkeley, and the Mars Polar Lander project.

Friedman says, "Placing a microphone to listen in on another world is a real opportunity for discovery. The interest of the public is matched by that of the engineering and science teams on the mission -- everyone wants to hear what Mars sounds like."

The Mars Microphone can record natural sounds on Mars, such as wind, dust and electrical discharges in the Martian atmosphere, as well as noises of the moving parts of the spacecraft. The microphone can be triggered randomly by naturally occurring sounds or it can be programmed to listen to specific lander actions, such as when the arm digs in the soil.

The UC Berkeley team of Janet Luhmann, Dave Curtis, and Greg Delory built the Mars Microphone from mostly off-the-shelf parts, including a microphone used in hearing aids and a microprocessor chip used in speech-recognition devices and talking toys. The Mars Microphone uses Sensory, Inc's RSC-164 IC (Integrated Circuit or "chip"), the most popular IC for speech recognition in consumer electronics.

The Russian lidar is designed to examine dust and aerosols in the atmosphere. Principal Investigators of the lidar experiment are Viacheslav Linkin and Alexander Lipatov of IKI.

Students around the world are invited to participate in a Planetary Society essay contest to predict what sounds might be heard on Mars. The Society will conduct the contest in cooperation with Arizona State University's Mars K-12 Education Program. Students will write essays about what sounds on Mars might be like now as well as a hundred years from now, imagining a future Mars that might be very different from the planet today, perhaps colonized by humans. The contest winner will receive a trip to Planetfest '99 in December. For more information on the contest, contact Linda Hyder at (626)793-5100 or at

Data -- the sounds -- from the Mars Microphone will be offered to the public on the Planetary Society's World Wide Web site and in material developed by the Society in cooperation with other organizations. Educators will be able to log onto the Society's Web site for special curriculum devoted to the Mars Microphone. The Planetary Society's address is . Berkeley's Web site is .

Other instruments on the Mars Polar Lander include cameras, a robotic arm, and soil composition instruments. Two penetrators (or microprobes) will also be sent to the surface on that mission.

The Mars Polar Lander will arrive at Mars on December 3, 1999. The Planetary Society will celebrate the landing with a major public event in Pasadena, California called Planetfest '99, held December 3-5, 1999.

Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman founded the Society in 1980 to advance the exploration of the solar system and to continue the search for extraterrestrial life. With 100,000 members in more than 100 countries, the Society is the largest space-interest group in the world.

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