At 10:32 p.m. PDT on August 6th, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft successfully placed a mini car-sized rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars. It’s location is Gale Crater, a 154 kilometer (96 miles) wide, 3.5 billion year old hole in the ground, whose origin is not yet fully understood. In the center of the crater stands the five-and-a-half kilometer (18,000 feet) high mountain, Aeolis Mons (commonly referred to as “Mount Sharp”).
The trip to Mars spanned over 350 million miles, requiring an 8-month lonely voyage. Getting Curiosity to Mars was the easy part; landing the nearly one-ton rover was another game all together. Unlike its predecessors, Opportunity and Spirit, Curiosity could not use the ‘air-bag’ approach to landing because of its immense size. Instead, Curiosity employed a retro-rocket to slow its decent after entry and was lowered onto the ground via a “Sky-Crane” (See video below).
Over the next Martian year (686 Earth days), Curiosity – which is powered by the nuclear decay of plutonium – will do a multitude of experiments with various scientific tools, cameras, a weather station, a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to search for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface – just to name a few.
I can’t wait to see what new discoveries are around the corner. Something incredible is waiting to be known.
Finally, I leave you with a quote from the late Carl Sagan, recorded only months before his untimely death.
Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process — we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.
I’d like to extend a warm welcome to two new contributors to the blog! Please welcome David (davidcurry348050155) and Alex (sassymaps)!
Together we have a wide-range of interests that will be covered in the future; some will be editorial and opinion on various topics, others will be cut-and-dry coverage of the latest scientific discoveries. Either way, we hope that you will enjoy what we have to offer!
Ever since humanity first understood that other lands existed across vast oceans, we’ve been cursed with an everlasting itch to see what was there. Regardless of the perils, countless brave men and women set their sights on traversing immense distances in their ships, all for the chance to be the first people to set foot on foreign territory. Some were in search for new foods or spices, others for flexing their military muscles in dominance.
For the most part seeking new lands was a bargain, especially if the waters were uncharted. They did not know if they would succeed and return home or fail and perish at sea. The uncertainty of their fate, I imagine, is what drives people to try their luck. The hazards involved are an inseparable component of the potential glory.
I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”
-Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Curiosity is the driving force behind exploration. Most of the Earth (save for the ocean bottoms) have been visited, mapped and studied. Our playground for learning exploring is growing smaller. Where else is there to look but to other worlds? We are destined for the stars.
Enveloping darkness all around, the marble before you is a planet called Earth. Its image at this vantage point is that of a beautiful marble, ever changing in appearance and horrifyingly fragile. And just as if it really were a marble, you want to reach out and save it before it is consumed by total blackness.
This picture was taken in 1968 by the Apollo 8 crew. Can you imagine being there? Seeing your home grow smaller in apparent size; realizing that most everything you know, all of your experiences, everything, is more-or-less confined to a single pin prick on that dot. I can imagine it being a very humbling and stomach-churning experience as the true circumstance of our being is finally digested.
How lucky we are to live in this time; the first moment in human history when we are, in fact, visiting other worlds.”
Carl Sagan said these words in his hit TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which first aired on PBS in 1980. 30 years later, not only is Cosmos still one of the most-watched PBS series, but these words still ring true as our exploration of the universe continues. What was once a fantastic idea, purely in the realm of fantasy and wishful thinking, is now upon us. With new explorations come new discoveries. I may not personally have a direct connection with these missions, but the emotional connection one gets through the act of collective discovery is immense. The sense of elation for me is no different than for those who pour through the data collected; I’ve shared in celebrating wonderful successes to mourning when something goes wrong.
I, like Dr. Sagan, consider myself very lucky to be alive at this point in time where we are learning new and exciting things and probing the unknown. Even though we’ve been at this for a number of years, space exploration is still technically in its infancy and will only grow from here. How wonderful would it be if I could share with my grand kids some day that I was around when we discovered life on another world? We’ve already discovered thousands of other planets orbiting other stars, what will be next?
There’s nothing like the idea of telling these stories to the next generation and being able to say, “Yeah, and I was there when it happened”.
When we grow up we’re typically told the facts about the world around us without ever really getting involved with discovering for ourselves. I remember looking through a book on planets and space complete with illustrations and pictures of various celestial objects when I was young and being fascinated. But again, everything was learned facts and some were expected to be regurgitated on tests later on. While this is just the style of accepted education, it is far less superior to actual involvement from the students/child.
Let me explain what I mean: For example, take this picture of Saturn. Yes, we’re taught that Saturn is a planet and is very far away (1.2-1.6 billion kilometers from Earth). We are also taught that it is a very large planet – you can easily fit 763 Earth-sized planets inside. These are easy facts to throw around, but for it to really ‘drive home’ the scale of distance vs. size, there’s nothing like viewing Saturn (or any other planet!) for yourself through a telescope. I remember pointing my newly minted 8″ Dobsonian reflector at the distant world named after the God of Time and being absolutely captivated. I had suddenly grasped a new perspective; it wasn’t a picture in a book, it wasn’t just inked out facts, I was looking at the real thing for myself.
It was through the motions of personal involvement that I finally understood the immense distances and sizes involved. I must have followed Saturn for hours, enjoying my new sense of perspective on things.
This easily translates to just about any subject one wishes to address – such as history. One more example…
When teaching young children about the United States Constitution, there are a couple different ways of going about it. When I was in grade school we were taught the facts of what happened and required to regurgitate them later on exams. There was no involvement at all, and so thorough understanding of why things went the way they did was lost.
There is one method which would not only teach what the constitution says, but why it did and did not do certain things. The following is an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s “Demon-Haunted World” describing the Kunitz Method:
“Want the students to understand the Constitution of the United States? You could have them read it, Article by Article, and then discuss it in class but, sadly, this will put most of them to sleep. Or you could try the Kunitz method: you forbid the students to read the Constitution. Instead, you assign them, two for each state, to attend a Constitutional Convention. You brief each of the thirteen teams in detail on the particular interests of their state and region. The South Carolina delegation, say, would be told of the primacy of cotton, the necessity and morality of the slave trade, the danger posed by the industrial north, and so on. The thirteen delegations assemble, and with a little faculty guidance, but mainly on their own, over some weeks write a constitution. Then they read the real Constitution. The students have reserved war-making powers to the President. The delegates of 1787 assigned them to Congress. Why? The students have freed the slaves. The original Constitutional Convention did not. Why? This takes more preparation by the teachers and more work by the students, but the experience is unforgettable. It’s hard not to think that the nations of the Earth would be in better shape if every citizen went through a comparable experience.”
Involvement is a far better tool for teaching and understanding the world around us. Perspectives can be shifted from knowing something to understanding something if we put a little more effort into education.
“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”
The distribution of funds through the US government needs a change, and fast. NASA currently runs on just half-a-penny on the dollar from the tax payers. Look at what we can accomplish with that pitiful amount and think about what WILL be possible if that amount was raised to just a penny. The only limiting factor with what’s possible is the amount of money funneled into NASA; it has been said that for every dollar you invest into space exploration you get back ten. Sounds like a worth-while investment to me, doesn’t it to you?
We’re all bombarded with “the war on terror” and other fear-mongering political statements bent on pitting country against country. After all, fear was the main driving factor behind the Moonshot in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It is the year 2012 – hate, mistrust, fear; ALL of these should have been long-gone and the differences between people reconciled to come together. We should have been to Mars by now. Not at a singular country – bent on flexing their powerful political muscles – but as a consortium of nations hand-in-hand wanting to explore the universe as a collective species and not as rivaled tribes, trying to “one-up” the other.
When it comes to politics, this issue reaches down into my very being as being one of the most important things that we have to change. NASA’s budget has been steadily declining over the years. At one point it was easy to get money for space missions – it was literally handed out like candy. But now we’ve gone from pioneering adventures to the Moon with our eyes set on Mars to no longer sending up any manned missions; not even the shuttle. All important launches are now outsourced to other countries and up-and-coming private industries, such as Space-X.
However, every new venture requires a catalyst. Take the Cold War, for example; I would argue that if not for the arms race between Soviet Russia and the United States, we probably wouldn’t have visited the Moon by now. It’s unfortunate that a conflict was necessary to build a space program but it is what it is. Now the most important thing is to sustain that program, develop it more and continue our exploration. No one wants another conflict to spark further exploration, so it is vital that political walls and differences between countries are broken down. Combine technologies, ideas and expertise and split the costs of exploration.
We, as a species, gain knowledge and understanding via exploration of our universe and surroundings, something you can’t put a price on. So, in essence, when we suppress exploration we are supporting ignorance. Please visit Penny4NASA to see what you can do to help.