Studio: Discovery Channel/Genius Entertainment
US Rating: Not Rated
Film Length: 43 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English Dolby 5.1 and English Stereo 2.0
Review Date: April 5, 2009
*Note: MARS - The Quest for Life was originally aired on the Discovery Channel
The Show - out of
I’ll be honest, about once a week or so, I will peruse the channel guide for what’s coming up on Discovery HD, The Science Channel, National Geographic and The History Channel, scouring for any programming that explores the universe, the history of the earth, the nature of eternity and the fascinating science and theology of the origins of the hundreds of billions of galaxies that populate the deep black canvass of the sky. The Discovery Channel can be an absolute goldmine for fascinating shows that delve into the subjects that engage me so easily. Even shows that repeat and are now a few years old, discussing ‘upcoming’ missions to the planets in our solar system, missions that have long since begun, are no less interesting in the way they dissect the purpose and hopes of such missions – to varying degrees of depth and discussion.
The Discovery Channel’s MARS: The Quest for Life follows the Mars Phoenix Lander mission designed to find signs of life on the red planet. In 1999, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Mars Polar Lander mission failed during the complex Entry-Decent-Landing (EDL) phase. The failure of that mission was a devastating and expensive blow to NASA. But the mission was so important that a second chance was given to the scientific community and planning began almost right away on a second attempt. Much of the team managing the original failed mission were brought back to try a second time and new members were brought on board to investigate what went wrong with the Mars Polar Lander so that the new Phoenix mission won’t suffer the same fate.
While the title of this Discovery Channel show would indicate a focus on the particulars of the search for life, what is actually presented here is documentation on the preparation of the mission itself. We follow the investigation to eliminate defects found from the ill-fated Polar Lander mission, focusing on the critical EDL phase of the mission, where the Lander enters the Mars atmosphere burning almost as hot as our sun, must slow down to merely hundreds of miles an hour, deploy a parachute and then use its pulse modulating thrusters and radar to further slow its decent until it touches down on the Martian surface.
The Lander, once landed and with solar sheets deployed and fully powered, would (and now has) begin its scientific exploration and experimentation using its remarkably complex onboard science lab. The Lander would deploy its digging arm, excavate soil, reaching below the normal surface soil to the soil beneath in search of carbonate in the soil and proof of organic molecules that may once have existed before Mars lost its surface water.
Despite some quality computer generated imagery to demonstrate the landing of the Phoenix Lander (that we could not possibly witness otherwise), the real highlight of this 40+ minute show is the human story; the investment of heart, mind and soul by the mission teams into these scientific multi-million dollar gambles that seek to uncover the mysteries of life on other planets. But as interesting as this element is, the entire show misses an opportunity (and one that seems to be promised by its title) to share more of the search and science of what life could be on the big red planet. Only a passing mention is made of extremophiles, the form of life that thrives in the harshest of environments and the form that scientist now believe represent our best chance of finding life elsewhere in our own solar system. And as interesting as this is as a documentation of the Mars Lander Mission preparation, launch and touchdown, it would have benefited from an update, perhaps in the form of special features, from what has been discovered and uncovered since it landed.
The excitement as the mission launched on August 4th, 2007 on its 10 month journey and the tension as it enters the Mars atmosphere and the critical phase where the Polar Lander mission failed is palpable. The people we meet working on the mission are dedicated and interesting. But this show, presented on blu-ray, while still valuable, is not complete and now, without an update on the mission progress, seems a little dated already.
The Discovery Channel presents MARS: The Quest for Life in its HD broadcast ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. As you might expect if you saw the original broadcast, the presentation is clean, superb colors (the reds of the Mars surface, the silver and whites of the mission headquarters and the natural flesh tones) really stand out but the image is a little softer than was expected. The footage from the mission room of the Mars Polar Lander (its failed landing) is older, 4:3 and stretched to fit and is grainy and without the clarity the subsequent footage. Overall, however, the image quality is solid, not perfect, and shows off nicely here on Blu.
With narration from Mike New, the audio is primarily front focused and mainly from the center channel. The surrounds are used only occasionally and the subwoofer gets to stretch its legs during launch footage and recreations of the EDL phase of the mission. For the most part, the audio suits what we see, but generally is a missed the opportunity to truly rumble and envelope us.
No extras, no stars.
At a mere $457MM dollars, the Mars Phoenix Lander was considerably cheaper than the billions of dollars used to fund and launch previous missions. Using leftover elements of other missions to reduce cost, this mission had to overcome the failure of earlier mission with less money and used parts. Witnessing the success of this mission is great to see, especially when you consider the odds stacked against its success. That anything can be launched from our planet, strapped to a Delta 2 Rocket and travel millions and millions of miles, then slow down from thousands and thousands of miles an hour to just about 150, deploy a parachute, engage radar and fire thrusters to slow it down enough that it doesn’t smash on the surface of another planet, is remarkable when you think about it.
Now that the Mars Phoenix Lander mission has succeeded in getting there, those of us who follow these missions have enjoyed the reports of what it has been doing up there. Every mission suffers setbacks, hiccups and disappointments, but the search for life, and the evidence of it, is not over and so we continue to wait.
I am not sure this show is substantial enough to warrant its own blu-ray release, certainly not without extras that this release so desperately needs, but the mission itself and this show’s documentation of the mission preparation is still interesting.