Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity Lands on Mars: Something of a Miracle

Well, they did it. In one of the most challenging engineering feats in the history of space exploration, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (a robotic rover named Curiosity) successfully landed on Mars after a 9-month journey to the Red Planet. Apparently, the landing was a complete success although it might require a bit more time to determine is everything if fully operational on the rover.

Nevertheless, this is a historic moment for human space exploration. Several robotic rovers preceded Curiosity over a period of decades, but all of them were small by comparison and have nowhere near the capabilities of the newest robotic probe. It is hoped Curiosity will greatly broaden our knowledge of Mars, gather information for ultimately a human landing on the planet probably several decades from now, and possibly determine if there was ever life on Mars, albeit probably only microscopic life.

But today all that seems almost irrelevant to me compared with the fact the spacecraft actually landed safely. It required dozens of individual stages or components to work flawlessly in slowing the spacecraft down from roughly 13,000 miles per hour when it first entered the Martian atmosphere to a gentle set-down on the surface some seven minutes later.

Dubbed with the clever marketing slogan of “The Seven Minutes of Terror”, Curiosity had to perform everything automatically, with systems it carried into space with it, and without any direct human intervention. The reason for this is space itself or, rather, the distance of space. At the present (always fluctuating) distance between Earth and Mars it takes seven minutes to send a signal there…and seven minutes to receive one back. Another example where “time” is really just another way of looking at space and is, in my opinion, a human-inflected illusion of space.

I told a number of my friends when I first learned of the complexity of the landing a few weeks ago that it would be a “miracle” if everything worked according to plan. But, it did. And it does seem a bit miraculous to me even if it can all be broken down into neat segments of dozens of bits and pieces that worked by design. Just because you can explain the complete minutia of an event, natural or human-made, does not make it any less of a wonder. Among the many “firsts” in this mission was the successful deployment of a supersonic parachute and the lowering of the rover by a "sky crane", firing thrusters, which then had to release the rover on the ground before detaching itself and flying away so it wouldn’t crash into the very thing it was depositing so gingerly. All pretty cool stuff really.

At $2.5 billion, this mission really had a lot riding on it. With budgeting tighter than ever for NASA, a failure might have spelled doom for any immediate further exploration of Mars. Now, depending upon the functionality of Curiosity and what we discover, human destiny to eventually go to Mars seems very much alive and attainable. Whereas, a big splat into the Martian surface would have crushed hopes of future funding, even though it remains iffy how much more money will be allocated in these times of austerity to such non-essential (i.e. not consumer-driven, nor money-driven) matters.

Even with the success of the landing, the exploration of the planet – the taking of visual images and physical samples from the surface itself for rudimentary analysis with a tiny laboratory inside Curiosity, - will be a long and tedious process. Even though the probe’s mechanical arm is designed like a human arms so that it rotates and twists and bends according to the human shoulder, elbow, and wrist, it will still take 14 minutes all total to tell Curiosity to “pick up that rock” and have the action confirmed.

But, science probably doesn’t mind the slow slog ahead. After all, we are there. We can touch and experience Mars as never before, thanks to a successful launch last November, a long journey, and an incredible seven-minute ride to the surface. Figuring out something like this is the best case for human reason which, despite its many abuses and limitations, can still produce marvelous moments of complete wonder.

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