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Lander to listen for the sounds of Mars

The Mars Microphone  

November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 7:25 p.m. EST (0025 GMT)

(CNN) -- An idea first proposed by the late Carl Sagan will finally come to fruition in December, when NASA and the Planetary Society conduct an unusual experiment aboard the Mars Polar Lander.

The primary mission of the Lander is to study the soil, weather and atmospheric dust of Mars, as well as to take photographs of the southern polar region. But the compact spacecraft will also carry a tiny microphone, like those used in hearing aids, that will give scientists and laypeople their first chance to hear what the surface of Earth's neighbor sounds like.

Destination Mars
The way things sound on Mars

The following sound samples were recorded in vacuum chamber simulating Mars atmospheric conditions. (Sound files courtesy University of California, Berkeley, and the Planetary Society)


54K/7 sec.
AIFF or WAV sound


74K/9 sec.
AIFF or WAV sound

Robotic arm

84K/10 sec.
AIFF or WAV sound

2001 Theme

120K/15 sec.
AIFF or WAV sound
thumbnail The following series of animations were created for NASA by Engineered Multimedia.

Separation of solar array and microprobes

4 MB / 14 sec. / 320x240
QuickTime movie
Please enable Javascript

thumbnail Lander descends by parachute

9.5MB / 28 sec. / 320x240
QuickTime movie
Please enable Javascript

thumbnail Lander touchdown

13.4MB / 40 sec. / 320x240
QuickTime movie
Please enable Javascript

VideoMars Polar Lander animation
Windows Media 28K 80K

The microphone will listen for 10 second intervals, and record occasional frequency spectrum information. Scientists will use the latter information to determine the tonal structure of the sound.

The sound files will be posted for downloading on, NASA, and other Web sites.

Sound on the surface of Mars is expected to be similar to that on Earth, except much fainter because there is less atmosphere to push around, according to the project's developers.

The Lander's mic will compensate with amplifier circuits, and thus be able to pick up sounds fainter than those that could be detected by the human ear.

Among the sounds it might hear:

  • Those made by the Lander's own motors, robotic arm and other mechanical parts.
  • Sand blown against the Lander and the surrounding terrain.
  • Wind gusts
  • Sounds from electrical discharges in the dust clouds.
  • Other, unexpected sounds.

NASA officials say experience has shown that when a new instrument is developed and flown in space, it usually yields surprises about extraterrestrial environments.

The matchbox-sized device will piggyback on Russian instrument called a lidar, which will study the distribution of dust in the Martian atmosphere.

The microphone is funded solely by the Planetary Society, a worldwide nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life.

It is first instrument paid for by a membership organization to fly to another world, according to the Society.


Microphones in space exploration are not new, according to the Planetary Society. Other interplanetary microphone suggestions have been made over the last two decades and two were actually implemented:

  • Russian scientists sent a microphone to Venus in the 1980s and heard electrical discharges, although the results were not reported in the published literature.
  • The Apollo missions used microphones on the moon -- for the astronauts to communicate with Earth.

Course of Mars Lander corrected for December landing
October 30, 1999
NASA decides to stick with original Mars landing site
October 26, 1999
Mars Polar Lander team considers back-up landing site
October 22, 1999
Three panels to investigate Mars orbiter loss
September 28, 1999
NASA gives up search for missing Mars orbiter
September 24, 1999
Mars craft possibly dead
September 23, 1999

Mars Polar Lander: Official Web site
Deep Space 2
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Mars Pathfinder
Mars Meteorite home page
Planetary Society
Mars Society
The Nine Planets: Mars
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