EARTHLINGS MAY BE ABLE TO EAVESDROP ON MARS VIA THE INTERNET NEXT YEAR. If NASA's Mars Polar Lander touches down without mishap in December, 1999, an audio chip on the vessel will pick up the first sounds from another planet and broadcast them back to Earth.

Nothing exotic is expected--just whooshing wind and the scratch of sand blowing against the Lander. But there might be muted thunder from dust-cloud storms. "We don't really know what Mars's electrical discharges will sound like," says Janet G. Luhmann, a physicist with the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. "It might be just a crackling sound."

The $100,000 tab for the Mars Microphone project is being paid by the Planetary Society of Pasadena, Calif., a nationwide organization of space buffs. The audio chip is from Sensory Inc., and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. made the flash-memory chips that will store the sounds. Martian sounds will be recorded in 10-second increments, and the loudest segment will be relayed back to earth every 10 days.

Luhmann's team will post them on the Net at sprg.ssl.berkeley.edu/marsmic, and they are hoping for something unexpected. That could secure a ride for another Mars eavesdropper on NASA's next mission in 2001.

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