Red Planet, White Noise?

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Man's study of foreign worlds is about leave the silent era. If everything goes as planned, sometime on Saturday Internet users will be treated to the first-ever sound broadcasts from Mars. NASA's $200 million Polar Lander, outfitted to allow the most intimate glimpse so far of the Red Planet, is expected to touch down on a Martian polar region on Friday. The lander will broadcast weather conditions, photos and, for the first time, sound 157 million miles back to Earth. The sound broadcasts will be available on two web sites, http://marslander.jpl.nasa.gov and http://planetary.org.

While science fiction fanatics may expect chants of "Take me to your leader," TIME science writer Jeffrey Kluger says the recordings will more likely produce the audio equivalent of an interplanetary Al Capone vault. "It should pick something up," says Kluger. "The problem is, it'll probably just be wind, and we already know what that sounds like." Kluger says the real potential for big surprises comes from the craft's robotic arm and soil laboratory. While previous missions have taken topical samples up to a few inches deep, the lander arm will plunge three feet beneath the planet's surface, potentially unmasking microbes or fossils. "Three feet may not seem like a terribly deep excavation," says Kluger, "but if you've only gone a few inches in the past, it could open up a whole new world."