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Thread: Mars Coverage

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    Administrator Dave's Avatar
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    Mars Coverage

    It's all happening around Mars at the moment.

    The fact that Mars came closer to Earth this year than at any other point in our lifetimes has resulted in a small armarda of probes to the Red Planet.

    Space programmes are particularly vulnerable to the way they are covered by the news media. Favourable and accurate reporting increases public support, unfavourable reports can be the death of a particular endeavour. Unfortunately space programmes are poorly understood by most reporters and stories are routinely butchered.

    Over the next few weeks I'll be posting a few comments about the news media coverage of these historical events.

    Dave


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    Administrator Dave's Avatar
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    Beagle 2: A Dead Dog?

    The European Space Agency (ESA) has sent their first ever interplanetary mission - a dual mission to Mars consisting of the Mars Express orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander.

    Six days before arriving at Mars, the Beagle 2 separated from the main Mars Express craft and headed toward the planet alone, theoretically to land and commence its work. However, at the time of writing, the Beagle has failed to make contact with mission engineers and hope is fading for its safety.

    I should emphasize that, contrary to many reports, the science team won't be employing their main communication methods until early January and hope is not lost - it is only fading. It will be weeks before the Beagle can be declared a loss. There is still a fair chance that the mission will be recovered.

    Less optimistically, early in December I had a sadly prophetic conversation with my partner during which I expressed concern for Beagle 2, and more importantly, the impact its failure might have on the ESA space programme. I noted that Beagle 2 was a high-risk venture, operated by a team of interplanetary novices, tacked onto the "main" Mars Express mission and suffering from limited resources.

    From a purely scientific point of view Beagle 2 was still a worthy project. It had the potential for spectacular success, but even failure would provide invaluable learning experiences for an organisation new to this kind of exploration.

    However, the scientific world lives under the control of the political world. To me it was a tactical error to have included a high-risk project with the ESA's first Mars mission, especially since the lander was always going to attract the lion's share of media coverage. The ESA has an amazing orbiter which will (hopefully) increase our understanding of Mars significantly - but what will the world media focus on? The cute lander with the theme song by Blur! And what if this fails? The news reports will be all about the failure.

    And this is exactly what has happened. The main part of the mission (the orbiter) is performing flawlessly but the news headlines have read "Beagle Lander Remains Silent", "Hope Fades For Mars Mission", etc.

    How could ESA have not seen this coming? Why were they apparently willing to go along with the hype surrounding Beagle 2 when they knew it was the most risky element of the mission? Why did they not bill the Beagle as a long-shot and the orbiter as the real focus? If the Beagle had succeeded they would have had a bonus, whereas they are now faced with a PR disaster - even though the main mission is actually looking very positive.

    Perhaps the naivety of the mission planners is showing. Perhaps they thought that more publicity is always better publicity, whereas this often not the case.

    To be fair, the Beagle project was quite separate from Mars Express and largely private-funded. In order to exist it needed its own media drive. It's a dangerous situation as less media coverage would have meant less sponsorship, but badly planned coverage can have even worse long-term consequences.

    Over at NASA, the more experienced PR team has long known the importance of public perception (and therefore favourable media coverage). They are already preparing the media for the possibility of the NASA landers (MERS) failing - just in case.

    In my opinion, the prudent decision for the ESA would have been to downplay the prospects of Beagle 2 from the outset, concentrating instead on the Mars Express. This might have meant that instead of being overshadowed by the failure of Beagle they would be basking in the reports of the main mission's success.

    Scientists might argue that the success of Mars Express will speak for itself and eventually replace the disappointment of the Beagle loss. I say this is hopelessly naive. Anyone who understands the priority of news stories knows that this will not work. The time to mould public perception is now - in six weeks this particular news item will be relegated to a paragraph on page 16 (barring some spectacular discovery).

    Scientists must appreciate the importance of long-term public support and the fact that the news media is the only realistic means of attracting this support. They must therefore learn to understand how news works and how to use it. As the debriefs and post-mortems begin, I hope the ESA doesn't only concentrate on the scientific failures. I urge them to consider the business rule about expectation vs delivery, i.e. build public expectation, but not beyond your ability to safely deliver.

    It's unfortunate that these considerations should even exist, let alone be considered more important than the science. But that's the world we live in.

    The next few weeks will see how right or wrong I am, but there is one scenario I haven't yet covered... If Beagle 2 is resurrected and becomes a success (which I believe is still quite possible) then the media coverage will do a complete u-turn and become better than ever. Triumph-over-adversity makes a more popular story than a routine success. If this happens, I will gladly be proven wrong.

    -dave



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    Websites & Live Webcasts

    The current batch of Mars missions have had great internet coverage from their official websites.

    Both the Mars Express site (www.esa.int) and the Beagle 2 site (www.beagle2.com) have included live press conferences, webcams and other goodies. Although the main ESA site navigation can be a little confusing and text updates aren't always immediate, the overall internet communication strategy has been well executed.

    It was interesting to note the improvements in the live webcasts from Beagle 2. Initially the audio quality was marginal, cutaways non-existant, and general production values weren't exactly top-class. It was apparent that the "presenter" (chief scientist Collin Pillinger) was more accustomed to closed meetings than live broadcasting. However the quality got better over the few days after Christmas and what began as a rough video of inhouse conferences became a respectable webcast. To be picky, the scientists/presenters could do with a little more media training but let's not be too harsh - they were tired and stressed and did a good job. Long may this kind of coverage continue.

    The NASA landings will be covered live on NASA TV (www.nasa.gov - look for the NASA TV links) as well as Discovery Channel (http://dsc.discovery.com/news/features/mars/mars.html)



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    Administrator Dave's Avatar
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    Spirit Landing

    "Spirit" is the first of two NASA rovers to reach Mars.

    I watched the live webcast of the Spirit landing and I have to say it was one of the best webcasts I've seen. Sure, I'm biased. But it was incredible being in the same room as the mission scientists & engineers, seeing the images arriving at the same time they did. I was Cheering and hollering just as much as they were.

    This is an example of what can be done on the net to encourage interest in a particular field. Live participation is a huge drawcard. Seeing this stuff live was a completely different experience to watching a highlights package later.

    Live webcasts rule.


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    Administrator Dave's Avatar
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    David Letterman

    Last week Jim Garvin, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration, appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman.

    Unfortunately for Jim, this was the same day Spirit ran into problems and looked to be in serious trouble. This put something of a dampener on the interview but Jim still did a great job. David was also quite upbeat about it all, but obviously couldn't resist putting the boot in a few times, e.g. "but it is busted, right?" and "So there's no chance of calling AAA?".

    Anyway, David asked a very valid question about the reason for it all. He wanted to know exactly why we are so interested in analysing rocks. Jim's vague answers about searching for water didn't really satisfy David or, I suspect, anyone else.

    This is where NASA falls down with its media relations. When NASA went to the moon everyone knew why they were doing it (science/exploration/Russians). These days it's different - the goals are seen as more esoteric.

    To answer your question David, the reasons we need to go to Mars are:

    (1) It's in our nature to explore. We do it because we must.
    (2) We will eventually need to travel deeper into space in order to survive.
    (3) We analyse rocks on Mars in order to find out about ourselves. The long version of this answer won't fit here, but in essense we learn about our place in the universe by learning about the universe.

    NASA needs to stop telling the media that it's looking for water and tell them it's looking for the meaning of life.



  6. #6
    jan
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    Re: Mars Coverage

    home work help what is happening on mars at the moment


  7. #7
    Administrator Dave's Avatar
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    Re: Mars Coverage

    Hi Jan,

    There are several active missions currently at Mars, including two NASA rovers called Spirit and Opportunity, and one ESA (European Space Agency) orbiter called Mars Express. In a nutshell....

    The NASA rovers are both moving around near their landing sites (on opposite sides of the planet) investigating things of interest.

    Spirit recently finished digging a trench and analysing the sub-surface soil. It is now on its way to investigate a crater called "Bonneville."

    Opportunity is investigating an outcrop of rocks called "El Capitan". It has ground a hole in one of the rocks to study its interior.

    Mars Express is orbiting the planet taking spectacular high-resolution 3D images which are being used to create 3D models of the planet. Mars Express is also analysing the atmosphere.

    At this stage the missions are mostly about gathering images and data. Although we can see the pictures very quickly, it takes months/years for scientists to analyse all the data and work out what it all means. One of the main tasks is to find out where the water is and where it was in the past. This will help understand whether or not life could ever have existed on Mars, and also help plan for future human Mars missions.

    In any case it looks like the data is going to be very interesting.

    For more info, see these websites:
    http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home
    http://www.esa.int/export/SPECIALS/Mars_Express


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