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.
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”.
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.
Many Americans have a favorite sports team; teams for whom they cheer when they take on rivals. When a group of people congregate to root on their favorite football team, say in a local pub, the energy involved and the sense of camaraderie experienced can be spine-chilling. Even if the sports team loses, the sense of connection remains and is still indescribable; through ups and downs all leading up to the point to where your team has either succeed or they have not.
This is how I see the state of affairs when it comes to NASA and their quests into space. When Curiosity lands on Mars on August 5th, do you think every-day people are going to be out at a local pub eagerly watching the big screen TVs? Every time there is a mission such as this, it is the football equivalent of throwing a Hail-Mary pass blindfolded from the 1-yard line of your own end zone into heavy coverage with one second left in the game, down 7 points and still needing a 2-point conversion to pull out the win. Very difficult, but not impossible if you know what you’re doing, and it is stupefying that so few people know about it or care to watch it.
Missions like this are the ultimate nail-biter that every football nut loves and actively seeks. There is no “Team NASA”. In that I mean it seems as if there are very few hard-core fans of our own ability to do these difficult and wondrous things. I wish that pioneering events such as these were taken into the public eye much more and appreciated. Major network stations won’t air these events and so they go unnoticed.
I truly wish that I could walk into my local brew pub (packed to the brim) on the 5th with all the TVs airing the events as they happen. I would like to be able raise my glass to the success or failure of the mission with dozens of other like-minded fanatics, just as I would in supporting my Alma Mater.
On August 5th, 2012, a 2,000 pound rover by the name of Curiosity will land on Mars. This is NASA’s biggest and most expensive journey to Mars with little margin for error. Traveling over 13,000 miles per hour, Curiosity will slam into the Martian atmosphere to dissipate its velocity. A parachute will then deploy to slow its decent even more until the probe will physically lower the rover via cable and fire retro-rockets to gently place it on the surface. After it has successfully landed, the probe will shoot off to crash a safe distance away.
Sounds simple, right? Well, NASA’s team of scientists call this the “7 Minutes of Terror”. By the time they receive confirmation that Curiosity is about to enter the atmosphere, the rover itself will already be on the ground or have crash-landed. This is due to the amount of time radio signals take to travel from Mars to Earth (roughly 15 minutes one-way).
I am personally very excited for this tremendous event! At 7 feet tall, 9 feet wide and 10 feet long, the rover hosts an impressive array of gadgets that will help us to understand our neighboring planet, and hopefully confirm the presence of ancient life. That is, if all goes well….
For more information: http://phys.org/news/2012-07-mars-rover-human-approach.html