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Mars Microphone History

The idea of placing a microphone on Mars was first suggested by Planetary Society Founder Carl Sagan. Sagan 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."

The idea for the Mars Microphone instrument started with Janet Luhmann of the University of California, Berkeley and David Juergens of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who proposed to the Planetary Society that a sound-recording device would be easy to include on a Mars mission. Society Executive Director Louis Friedman investigated the possibility of incorporating a microphone in the Mars Polar Lander mission.

At that time, mission planners had just selected a Russian instrument to be put aboard the spacecraft (the first Russian instrument included on a US planetary mission). Under the direction of Viacheslav Linkin of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, the lidar would use a laser to study the distribution of dust in the Martian atmosphere. Linkin offered a place on the lidar for the microphone, which could operate without requiring any mass, power, volume, or data-rate adjustments on the lander.

Friedman and Sagan then requested NASA approval to include the microphone in the Mars Polar Lander payload, stipulating that there would be no cost to NASA. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science Wes Huntress, who would become President of The Planetary Society several years later, agreed.

The Planetary Society formed a team with the Space Sciences Laboratory at Berkeley, and together we developed a low-cost implementation plan that enabled the instrument to be built with sole funding from The Planetary Society. The Mars Microphone was the first instrument funded by a membership organization to fly to another world. It was designed, constructed, and tested under Luhmann's direction at the Space Sciences Laboratory.

Mars Polar Lander launched for Mars on January 3, 1999.  It lost contact with Earth shortly after it started its descent to the Martian surface on December 3, 1999 and was never recovered. Nevertheless, during the Mars Polar Lander mission we demonstrated that a low-cost (less than $100,000), small (25 cubic centimeters) and lightweight (50 grams) instrument could be constructed for a major NASA planetary mission.

Interest in the Mars Microphone project was so intense that immediately following the loss of MPL, a second opportunity to fly the microphone experiment was provided by the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), the French space agency, on the Netlander mission to Mars in 2007. Netlander was to land four small identical landers on Mars to study the atmosphere and the planetary subsurface and interior core. The Mars Microphone experiment was being redesigned to fit within the camera head of the Netlander probes being built by the German space agency DLR.

In June 2004, funding difficulties within the French space agency (CNES) forced the cancellation of the the Netlander mission, dooming the second chance for the Mars Microphone  to record sounds on Mars. Interest from NASA and other institutions remains high, however, and several other potential future mission opportunities for the Mars Microphone are being explored.

In the meantime, The Planetary Society was able to marshal its connections to the world of extraterrestrial acoustics to come to the aid of the European Space Agency.  The Huygens probe, due to land on Saturn’s moon Titan on January 14, 2005, carried within one of its instruments an acoustic sensor.  In early 2004, ESA approached The Planetary Society for help in quickly converting the data that would be returned from Huygens to sounds that the public could hear within hours after the descent.  The Planetary Society asked University of California Berkeley scientist Greg Delory to help with the effort.  Delory developed a computer program to turn the data from the entire 2.5-hour descent into recorded sound, and also produced processed sounds from the moments around landing.

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