Japan Goes to Mars

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That's one more small step for man: Nearly one year after the Pathfinder probe bounced down on the surface of Mars and plugged itself into the world's consciousness, Tokyo's Planet-B probe will attempt to do the same. If all goes well, the $80 million unmanned craft will launch this Saturday from Kagoshima space center. The preparations begin Tuesday, but Red Planet freaks will have to wait a while to download more of those breathtaking photos: Planet-B is scheduled to touch down in October 1999.

Still, this is history in the making -- the first time a non-superpower nation has attempted to probe another world -- and it will pave the way for the ever more confident Japanese to send a robot probe to the asteroid belt in 2002 and pick up some rock samples. "We've worked a long time to get this level of self-sufficiency in space," Kagoshima director Yasunori Matogawa said Tuesday. Call it a giant leap for the rest of mankind.