With all the trouble and strife on earth these days its no wonder that we spend so much time looking to Mars.
Last Sunday NASA rang in the New Year with the successful landing of Spirit Rover on the Red Planet, and the release of the first pictures and data collected by the probe.
A British Rover, dubbed the Beagle II after Charles Darwins legendary research ship, landed or crashed on Christmas Day, and scientists have since been unable to make contact with it. Another European venture, the Mars Express satellite, is still shifting into its planned orbit of Mars, at which point it will try to contact the Beagle II.
The Spirit Rover brings the total number of successful Mars trips to 10 out of 30 attempts. Some 20 probes, rovers and landers either went wide, broke down or crashed before they could be of use, at the cost of tens of billions of dollars. The feat is impressive, even with a 33 per cent success rate, if a little on the expensive side.
The unspoken question underlying all of this Martian discovery is whether the quantity and quality of scientific data collected by these missions could ever justify the enormous costs. In all honesty, the pictures sent back by the Spirit Rover to date could have been taken in any desert on earth.
So what is it all for?
By sending hardware to Mars scientists are hoping to answer a few questions about our nearest planetary neighbour. Such as: Is there water on Mars surface? Is there/was there life? Could there be life, if we were to put some there?
These are important questions if we ever wanted to visit or colonize Mars, which some scientists believe should be our end goal. They said the same thing about the moon in the 50s, but that proved to be a scientific dead end.
At the same time, there are a growing number of scientists, who believe that these missions are a waste of money, elaborate public relations stunts that divert money from serious research, and serious research technology.
Humanitarians also object, noting that the cost of these Mars missions could be better applied to health care, education, and the battle against poverty. They are skeptical as to whether any Martian discoveries will benefit mankind in the slightest.
So far they have a point. The Spirit team discovered that the atmosphere has more particulate than previously thought, which reduced the effectiveness of solar panels by one-sixth. They also found that the temperature at night is about 10 degrees Celsius warmer than we thought. Its still minus 100 at night. Its neat stuff, destined for textbooks, but its not going to change life drastically on earth.
To understand the reasoning and controversy behind decades of Mars research, check out Scientific American at www.sciam.com, click on any story about the Spirit Rover, and look for a link titled "Why Go to Mars".
To check out the latest pictures and data sent back to earth by the Spirit Rover, visit NASA at www.nasa.gov.
For more articles, visit Space.com to check out their special features on Mars.
Popular Science, www.popsci.com is another good site.
Browsers left behind?
According to new figures, more Internet users are connecting to the Web through devices like multimedia players and instant messaging devices than through conventional Web browsers like Internet Explorer, Netscape and Safari.
Some 76 per cent of Web surfers using the Internet in December used non-browser applications.
According to experts, this trend reflects the growing number of applications that access the Internet through their own interfaces rather than browsers. One example is Apples popular iTunes combined media player and music store. Instant messaging services, which are provided by Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and others, are seeing a pronounced increase in traffic. Remote e-mail access through PDAs and cell phones is also growing.
What this means for the Internet and browsers is not clear, although there is some concern that this could affect advertising revenues.
The Internet is currently suffering from information overload, with hundreds of millions of pages of information out there and more piling up every second of every day.
Its the role of the Internet Search Engine to dig through the piles to connect users to the pages they need. Unless you are incredibly specific in your search parameters, its harder than ever to find that needle in the haystack.
When Google hit the mainstream, the search became easier, but even now people are looking for newer ways to narrow their search results down. Here are a couple of promising sites.
Vivisimo (www.visimo.com/) Vivisimo is a Clustering Engine that creates sub categories for search results. A quick search for Mars Explorer resulted in clusters under the heading Planet, Rover, Pds Mars, Mars Exploration Nasa, Mars missions, Instructions Wire and more.
Grokker (www.groxis.com) Grokker is a pay service that takes a little longer to sift through information, but can be personalized to automatically reject different search results. The time saved by eliminating bad search results or obvious commercial pleas makes up for the extra time this service takes sifting through results. The interface is also pretty cool, and makes results easier to organize.
TouchGraph (www.touchgraph.com) TouchGraph is essentially Google plug-in that shows links as part of a greater structure, organizing results more effectively under headings. For example, if you searched for Mars Explorer using TouchGraph youd know what search results are from NASA, Space, Astronomy and other sites, and what search results are from the telescope store.
AskJeeves (www.askjeeves.com) Although Ask Jeeves isnt new, the Teoma feature is becoming more popular by grouping search result links into appropriate categories.