A seemingly barren landscape stretches as far as the eye can see, with no plants, mountains, or even a sky as we know them anywhere on the horizon. This is not our world. This is a part of Mars no one has ever seen.

That changed Sunday after a NASA spacecraft landed in the planet’s northern polar region, successfully beginning the educational stage of a mission spanning 422 million miles.

“It’s always exciting exploring a place we’ve never been before,” said Cal Poly physics professor John Keller, a planetary scientist who worked with the Mars Odyssey orbiter that discovered buried water-ice on Mars in 2002. “The most exciting part about this mission is it’s the first time we’ve gone to the arctic region of Mars. Other times were closer to the equator and we were never able to analyze ice because it was too hot.”

In the Business Silo, Keller facilitated a live broadcast by Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab of the Phoenix Mars Lander’s touchdown.

A standing-room-only audience of about 300 people spanning all ages attended the event leading up to the 4:53 p.m., much-applauded touchdown, slightly less than two hours before four dozen black-and-white images were beamed back to Earth.

Devised to study the history of water and investigate the soil of the Martian arctic, the lander, launched Aug. 4, 2007, will start its mission by digging with its robotic arm to reach subsurface water-ice, which, along with topsoil, will then be brought to its platform for chemical and geological analysis meant to find answers regarding the planet’s potential history of life.

“On Earth, we know where there’s water, there’s life,” Keller said. “We don’t necessarily expect to find anything, but it could give us clues.”

Also among the program’s goals are to better understand the planet’s climate and habitability.

Keller, who helped write the University of Arizona’s successful proposal for undertaking the mission, said he was recently asked whether people still cared about space, and that the community’s response “definitely spoke well” of thriving intrigue.

“This was a good first test for this kind of event at Cal Poly,” he said. “Students seemed to be really interested, and the audience seemed to be engaged and receptive and was asking great questions. Mars has that kind of captivation.”

Operated for NASA by the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in partnership with the JPL, Lockheed Martin and the Canadian Space Agency, the mission can only serve to strengthen the relationships between NASA, the JPL and Cal Poly undergraduates pursuing internships, Keller said.

“With how strong we are in engineering, there’s always a direct connection there,” he explained.

Between 50 to 80 representatives of the Cal Poly Astronomy Club – a sponsor of the event, along with the Central Coast Astronomical Society and Cal Poly’s Center for Excellence in Science and Math Education – helped administer the event outside the room by providing refreshments, cake and activities tailored to children.

“It was great to have so many kids be here,” Keller said. “A kid 4, 8 or 10 years old may ask his or her parents, ‘What was that about?’ and it makes them think about exploration.”

For Nipomo’s Noreen Bronicki, who brought her 8-year-old son, Jason, it was worth attending.

“My son’s very interested in space,” she said. “It gave him a great opportunity to be exposed to science.”

Other onlookers applied more perspective to the historic occasion.

“I’m just glad it didn’t hit a boulder,” said aerospace engineering freshman Lacey Jones, alluding to the Mars Polar Lander, which crashed into the south pole in 1999. “With all that time and money spent on it, I hope it’s a success.”

Alex Pruitt, a mechanical engineering freshman, said he’d enjoy similar events on campus.

“It was pretty exciting,” he said. “And there were pretty good explanatory animations. I would definitely keep coming to these kinds of things.”

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