August 7, 2012 – The modern world seemed to get a hitch in its giddy-up late Sunday night through early Sunday morning as mankind’s largest ever planetary explorer hurtled toward the Red Planet, Mars, at a top speed of 13,201 mph.
Throughout the weekend anxiety increased as rapidly as the Mars Science Lab’s velocity to the Red Planet grew once gravity picked up on its mass, drawing it in with invisible might. Ok, so gravity is actually the weakest of the four primary forces in the Universe, but it’s still persistent. I just love being able to “slip in” science content like that.
By now everyone knows that the Mars Science Lab (MSL), also known as Curiosity, landed successfully, flawlessly, stuck the landing on Mars within a few inches of its mark. I like its real name much better because it’s just not a project name. Although it’s a verb, imagine if all of our projects in life were as vague as the name “curiosity.” In the anti-matter world we would have to name this thing “Disinterest,” I suppose. The opposite of disinterest can be seen in the JPL control room in this dual screen shot from my home computer, snapped at the moment of successful landing. On the left you can see the controllers while on the right, you can see Curiosity at rest on the surface of the Red planet.
Bragging on my favorite nation (America), we’re so good at landing spacecraft on planets millions of miles away, that we don’t even get riled up anymore when we stick these landings. For example, the uncorrected miss-distance that I heard over the sort of made up “mission control” at the Jet Propulsion Lab (more on that later) was about 223 meters. Imagine after 320 million miles (or so) being about 600-feet off the mark. I heard one of those ridiculous analogies that has no empirical validity, but sounds good so I’ll repeat here. Landing Curiosity as close to the mark on Mars was like hitting a golf ball at the Kennedy Space Center and sinking it in a hole in one at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Ok, we’re much better than that because after the dust settled, this Rover was so smart that it used its own onboard intelligence to choose the best site at the last few seconds. We built it so well, that the Mars Science Lab decided where it wanted to land. It’s pretty straightforward, just programming, good radar and some accurate thrusters with an adequate load of rocket fuel.
The best thing about the Mars Science Lab is that we didn’t crash into Mars and destroy our $2.6 Billion investment. How completely frustrating is it to see people who normally show little or no interest in space, science or technology except when there’s a chance something might crash, suddenly become interested when they think something might go boom.
Indeed there was a significant risk associated with this landing. People can’t even begin to appreciate how difficult it is to land on Mars – but here goes; I’ll try to explain some reasons.
Mars is a tweener, large enough to have significant gravity to pull in a spacecraft but not strong enough to hold onto a nice, thick atmosphere that a landing parachute can bite into as a way to slow down on landing. Because of this we have to perform some kind of terminal landing event like airbags or landing rockets or even a big-ole skycrane like we did this time.
The reasons we had to use a Sky Crane include providing a soft landing, not spraying dust, dirt and martian rocks all over the Rover. That last one is the critical path in this adventure, even though the Mars Science Lab doesn’t have to worry about solar panels getting dirty, the last thing we want is to get a rock stuck in the wheels, any of the 10 science projects on board, or worse yet, maybe get stuck at the inlet of the Death Ray.
That’s right I said it, the Mars Science Lab has a Death Ray. Ok, it’s not really a death ray but it could be if it slammed into your body. Located atop Curiosity’s “neck and head” is the ChemCam, whose job is to vaporize rocks, at a distance of up to 23 feet. The light that emerges from the vaporized substance is then analyzed to determine whether it is worth further analysis.
ChemCam will help NASA “characterize” the geology of Mars, check for evidence of past habitability, assess the “biological potential” of parts of Mars, and determine whether or not the soil of Mars is toxic. What do we do if we learn that the Martian soil is toxic to humankind?
Our President wants to, appropriately, use information gained from this mission to better plan, resource and execute a human mission to Mars. Just like people scoffed at the audacity of American landing on Mars this time, we can and should attempt to land people on Mars and start a little colony up there. In a short 1,200 years we could produce enough CO2 to begin warming the place up and then we can start growing a bunch of Oxygen-producing flora and fauna.
Although my personal view is that we should focus more on the robotic exploration which gives us a much better chance of determining whether or not we are alone in this big-ole Universe filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies, each galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars. However, it’s also really important to recognize that all of this is a human endeavor, part of the human experience and without that human experience, this might as well be just another line of computer code, cold, lifeless and without meaning.
See AstroDad’s interview on CBS 11 Dallas:
Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall.
Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator. He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes. Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.
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