Hello From Mars


"The rockets came like drums, beating in the night."
From "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury

Walter Gripp is the last man on Mars. All the rockets to Earth have launched without him. One evening in a deserted town, he hears a phone ringing. This creepy scenario from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles has captured the fascination of science fiction fans for decades. The reader wonders, who could it be? The scientist wonders, what would it sound like? We're about to find out...maybe.

The next generation of Mars Rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, is going to be a triumph of engineering. As big as an SUV, it will be designed to survive like a creature in the wild. The rover will be equipped with heaters, insulation, and an exoskeleton. It will carry an array of sensors for temperature, wind, radiation, dust, infrared, and pressure. Of course it will have cameras to see Mars, but it may also hear Mars. This rover is expected to carry microphones to record its landing and to monitor the weather, experiments, and maneuvering. As a bonus, scientists are hoping it hears sounds on Mars we don't yet know exist.

This isn't the first Mars mission to have a microphone. The Mars Polar Lander that launched in January 1999 (incidentally, the same month and year that The Martian Chronicles begins) had the Mars Microphone. Unfortunately, the lander crashed on Mars eleven months later. The canceled Netlander missions from the ESA (European Space Agency) and CNES (French National Centre for Space Studies) was to have the Mars Microphone as well. In 2020, scientists will try once more to eavesdrop on Mars.

The big question is, what will Mars sound like? As we know, sound can't travel through a vacuum, it needs gas molecules to collide with. But the atmosphere on Mars is quite different from Earth's. It's more than a hundred times thinner, is made up of mostly carbon dioxide, and is very dry. Studies that approximated the conditions on Mars found that sounds would be lower in pitch, decay faster, and wouldn't travel as far as on Earth.

If you were living on Mars like Walter Gripp, you'd still hear that phone ringing. But it would be faint and pitched down to sound more like a school bell. What would you sound like when you pick up the telephone and say "Hello?" I know what I would sound like – "(Cough) I ...(cough)...can't ...(cough)...breathe!!!” – lower in pitch of course.

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