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Gizmos galore, Miles packs for re-entry

Miles O'Brien and producer Linda Saether
Miles O'Brien and producer Linda Saether  

CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien and producer Linda Saether are in Devon Island, Canada, where NASA and other researchers are taking part in The Haughton-Mars Project, a NASA-led program researching the Haughton impact crater in the Canadian high arctic. The area is said to be similar to Mars and may give insights into the possibilities of living in the extreme environment of the red planet.

JULY 19, 2001 -- DEVON ISLAND -- I have got this new watch that tells me much more information than anyone needs to know, much less have sitting on their wrist: altitude, barometric pressure, magnetic heading, even heart rate. It's a smarty-pants watch and this morning I began loathing it with all my weary heart and soul.

The time was 4:45 a.m. ADT (Always Daylight Time), which meant we had to hit the rock pile again. This week of constant work and relentless sunshine is taking its toll -- four to five hours in the bag are just not enough.

But my Einstein Timex was insistent. And then my pedantic Palm Pilot chimed in. I surrendered and peeled away my fiber-filled cocoon, which is able to withstand cold weather well beyond my limitations. So there I was -- awake, but feeling like I needed to get the license number of the truck that hit me, and surrounded by inanimate objects that think they are better than I am.

The day could only go in one direction. For one thing, we decided to leave behind our canvas hovel on the prairie. We set up shop right in the center of downtown Devon, closer to the computer connection that would enable us to do a webcast/chat, along with Haughton Commander-in-Chief Pascal Lee.

CNN's Miles O'Brien has a look at a possible faster way to Mars (June 17)

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Giant dust clouds cook red planet  

This was a good thing, as Martha Stewart might say. We were outside on a brilliant sunny day. We were eight steps from the mess tent, and we were in the midst of all the action. Being a TV guy and all, I need constant stimulation.

We laid a sheet of plywood across a pair of sawhorses, then started aiming antennas, connecting boxes and mashing buttons. We are pros at this now. When the Videophone tells us it has an ISDN connection problem, we know instantly to unplug, then re-plug, the small box that links the two satellite phones. When the other satellite phone won't turn on, we know to take out the battery, let it rest for a spell, then put it back in for a restart. And we know it is not such a good idea to stand in front of your antennas while trying to do a report.

Still, the next time, unless the boxes become more reliable, I think I would bring an engineer to baby-sit the electronics. It was fun to see if we could do it with just two people, but we had our hands full.

I was reminded of how cool all this is as the morning wore on and we drew a lot of interest from the Devonians -- or is it Devonites or Devoneers? Take your pick -- this is a work in progress up here.

They marveled at our setup and the fact that we were the extent of the CNN crew. We in the TV business talk a lot, often nervously, about "Al Franken Cam." It is synonymous for doing more with less. For the uninitiated, the expression comes from a sketch that Franken did on Saturday Night Live about 15 years ago. It was during a protracted technicians' strike at NBC, and he spoofed the network's cost-cutting effort by rigging himself a one-man TV news band, reporting from Harlem -- complete with a satellite dish on his head. When he tilted to one side, the signal went to snow. Eventually he was mugged. It is hilarious. But now reality has caught up with the hyperbole of humor.

An aerial view of 'Mars camp'
An aerial view of 'Mars camp'  

For the record, here is the basic schematic: A pair of high-bandwidth Inmarsat satellite phones are linked by cables to a device called a Soda Box, which melds the two 64K signals together. The Soda Box is, in turn, linked to the Videophone, which ingests the standard (30 frames per second) TV image from our camera, runs it through a compression Cuisinart, and then sends it up the line at a 15 frames-per-second clip. Voila! Instant live television from anywhere -- and we have proved that -- in three briefcase-sized boxes. Just add pancake makeup.

Technology rules. Just ask my watch and Palm Pilot. Back to the tent. I am dog-tired again. Now, which way is it, Wrist Rocket? -- Oh, you don't say? Your compass is not working above the Arctic Circle?

I'll get even tomorrow morning, at about 4:45.

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