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THE 2000


For the first time in history, mankind is about to become a regular visitor to places in our own solar system. Already, plans are in the works to check out Mars, Saturn, and even Pluto, the most distant in our own cosmic village of planets.

The plans for interplanetary travel sound like something out of science fiction, but they're not.

"Our plan is to send the first mission to Pluto shortly after the turn of the century," said Robert Staehle, the manager of the Pluto Mission.

Daniel McCleese of the Mars Expeditions Team predicts that by 2015, "you could see the planet with people living on the surface for as long as two Earth years."

And Cheik Diara, a scientist from Jet Propulsion Lab, said that eventually, weather forecasts from Mars will be available on the Internet.

In the next 20 years, scientists say, planetary exploration may lead to an explosion of knowledge, a 21st century renaissance.

Robotic emissaries will carry out the first expeditions. Next October, the Cassini probe begins a seven-year trip to Saturn and its moon Titan. As Cassini mission manager Richard Spehalski noted, robots have the capacity to tell us much about the makeup of other planets through chemical analysis and photography.

"I'd like to see if we've got lakes and waterfalls of ethane or other organics. Maybe even icebergs," Spehalski said. "Who can tell?"

In 2003, NASA's mission to Pluto, the Pluto Express, is scheduled to lift off on a journey to the last unexplored planet of the solar system. It will take the craft 10 to 13 years to get from Earth to Pluto.

While the probes act as our eyes and ears in deep space, humans will remain relatively close to home, living and working on a new international space station. NASA will continue flying shuttle missions for at least the next 15 years.

By 2010, it's hoped a new commercially developed space vehicle will be ready. The new vehicle won't jump right in to replace the current space shuttle, though. It will have to demonstrate its performance and reliability before NASA payloads will be placed on it.

Humans won't leave low-Earth orbit until it's time to send a manned mission to Mars, which could happen as early as 2011, depending on what robotic probes find. The first two robotic missions, Pathfinder and Global Surveyor, are already on the way.

Half a dozen other landers and orbiters are scheduled in the next eight years, all leading up to the most ambitious mission since the days of Apollo. In about 2005, a spacecraft will leave Earth for Mars and hopefully will return three years later with a 1 pound sample of Martian rock and soil.

"I think the central issue of 'should we send humans' is a question of need," McCleese said. "Will we learn that Mars presents a mystery that requires humans to land to solve it?"

The mystery, of course, is whether life ever did or still does exist on the Red Planet. The discovery of Mars meteorites containing possible evidence of past primitive life has led to new questions about the origin of life in the solar system.

The theory, according to Ed Shostak of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, is that Mars had very simple forms of life before organic life forms appeared on Earth. "A chunk of Mars lands on Earth and seeds our planet, and we are the result -- four billion years later, three billion years later. So in that scenario, we are the Martians," Shostak said.

"I think it's a fascinating speculation that perhaps the home planet of the human race might actually be Mars," said planetary astronomer Rich Terrile.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson also was excited by the finding. "One of our nearest neighbors has evidence of life. Maybe life now, in the wake of that information, is far more prevalent in the galaxy than we ever imagined," he said.

Unraveling these mysteries may well lead to an age of enlightenment, and the answers we find may yield even more profound questions than the ones we are beginning to answer.

SOME FACTS:

# 2001, 03, 05 Mars Surveyor Program (USA) 3 separate landers.

# 2003, 27th august : The red planet will be less than 56 million kilometres from Earth,
the closest it's been for 60,000 years.

# 2005 Mars Sample Return (USA): Retrieve soil samples and bring back to Earth for analysis.

WHAT SPACE MAY LOOK LIKE IN THE FUTURE :

2000s: International Space Station

2030s: Space tours

2040s: Battle Station

2050s: Space Factory

2060s: Power House In Space

2090s: Hotel Luna

2095s: Space Colony

2100s: City On Mars

2100s: Space Rock City

2110s: Escape From The Sun

2140s: Orbital Elevator