(G) 3.5 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Roving Mars, the new giant-screen film opening Friday at the IMAX Theater in

the Indiana State Museum, visualizes an amazing story that is still going on. On the surface of the planet Mars right now - right this very second - there are two manmade robotic vehicles capable of navigating the rocky surface. Powered by solar panels, they explore the red planet, sending information back to eager scientists on Earth. Incredible, isn't it?

Let's just hope that their movements don't disturb the cruel Martian overlords that live underground; vicious creatures capable of destroying humanity with their nightmarish killing machines or invading Earth by cover of night and kidnapping all of our women to satisfy their twisted alien needs!

But I digress.

Steve Squyres, lead science investigator at the NASA/Jet Propulsion laboratory, provides commentary for the 40-minute Disney film, recounting the fascinating story of the building, launching, landing and tasks of the space rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The challenges were monumental. For this project to work, the design team had to create machines that could perform a variety of intricate tasks by remote control. Very remote control. As if that were not enough, they also had to figure out how to land the things.

Filmmaker George Butler (Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry) uses extensive computer animation to present the travels of the separately-launched rovers. Especially fascinating are segments depicting the separation stages following the launches and the complicated - and quite cool - landing procedures.

For the footage on Mars, Butler and company base their visuals on actual photos of the landscapes taken by Spirit and Opportunity. The rovers, so fragile-appearing in the labs on Earth, prove to be reliable and far sturdier than even their designers dared hope. The improbable-looking little buggies, capable of traversing over rocks while keeping their bodies more or less level, were expected to last only a few months, but they are still going strong right now.

Though awe-inspiring, inspirational and well worth a visit, Roving Mars has its problems. Once we see the rovers strut their stuff, there is little left to look at on the pink, dull Martian landscapes unless you are a geologist. Director Butler tries to keep the proceedings lively by using CGI to swoop dramatically through the alien skies, eventually zooming across the surface before delivering the standard IMAX money shot - a sudden, huge drop-off as we pass over the cliff-like edge of a crater.

Not that I'm complaining (well, not all that much). Any device that can generate excitement for the space programs is OK in my book. Roving Mars is about teamwork and ingenuity in the service of exploration. It inspires.

NOTE: In celebration of the opening of Roving Mars, the IMAX Theater is bringing two NASA notables and Purdue grads to town. Guy Gardner is a former astronaut and veteran of two space missions and Amy Ross is a NASA space suit project manager and a team leader in developing space suits for future space missions, including trips to Mars.

The two will host Q&A sessions at the 10 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. screenings on Friday. On Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m., Ross will host a special workshop about creating space suits called "Ultimate Design Challenges." There will be a 9 a.m. screening of Roving Mars that morning for those wishing to see the film before the workshop.

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