Monday, August 06, 2012
A little Curiosity is a good thing...
I love science.
I especially love the whole idea of exploring space. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise. I grew up listening to test firings of the rocket engines that took US astronauts into space and, ultimately, to the moon. This fascination with space exploration has not faded, and so I watched coverage of the landing of Mars rover Curiosity last night.
Watching on television was not an option, since none of the cable news or broadcast networks bothered to cover the event live. Fortunately, NASA provided live streaming from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, where the project to put Curiosity on Mars is headquartered. I had that coverage open in one tab on my laptop, so I could watch along with some of my fellow science geeks/knitters on Ravelry, open in another tab. I also had a third tab open, where I skipped back and forth between Facebook and Twitter. It was like going to four parties simultaneously.
See why I love science? Not to mention the technology it enables.
As I sat and watched, I was reminded of when I spent an afternoon in 1969 watching TV coverage of the first manned moon landing. I was twelve years old then, and watched the landing with my father. I missed him a lot last night, watching Curiosity's landing. He would have loved it. He would probably have said, as he did in 1976 when Viking 1 landed on Mars to send back the first color photos of the surface of the planet, that it would be absolutely hilarious if a little green guy turned up making faces at the camera in the first pictures back. He took his space travel seriously, but he also had a sense of humor about it.
Of course, there was more at stake when Eagle landed on the Moon. There were two men inside the lunar module, and if something had gone wrong.... Well, it would have been a Very Bad Thing.
But, a lot could have gone wrong with the landing of Curiosity, as well, and while there were no human lives at stake, a lot of effort by a lot of people would have been lost if the landing hadn't gone as planned. The whole landing apparatus was new. The parachute could have failed. The landing engines could have misfired or not fired at all. The sky crane that lowered Curiosity to the surface could probably have malfunctioned in several different ways.
Even if everything went right with the landing, the word was that because of the uncertainties of communications due to the time and location of touchdown, it might not be clear for up to two or three days if the landing had been successful. As it was, the length of time that it takes signals to travel from Mars back to Earth meant that Curiosity would be on the ground for close to fifteen minutes before anyone on Earth would be able to know for sure that it had arrived safely.
Watching the live stream from JPL, it was clear that there was a lot of breath-holding in the control room in the minutes before touchdown. Then, as the signals began to return, tracking the descent of the craft, there were small, tentative bursts of applause at certain milestones. Signals were handed off, then continued to come in. The parachute had deployed. The landing engines had kicked in. The craft was slowing as it should. The sky-crane was lowering the car-sized Curiosity to the surface.
And then, "Touchdown confirmed."
That was the announcement that set off pandemonium, cheers, high-fives, and tears of joy and relief in the control room. Someone had to shout pretty loudly to get the team members to pay attention: "Heads up, folks!" And then, shortly after that, "We've got thumbnails. Keep watching the screen."
And, indeed, there were thumbnails. Pictures. Curiosity had only been on the surface of Mars for a few minutes, but it was already sending back photos, taken through a clear dust cover that had not yet been jettisoned. The horizon was visible. So was a wheel of the rover, and the rover's shadow on the ground in the late afternoon sunshine. You could even see bits of dust thrown up by the landing rockets that had lodged on the dust cover.
It was amazing.
It was also more proof, as were those first photos sen back from Viking 1, in 1976, that Mars - like the Earth and the Moon - is a place. A place with dirt and dust and rocks and hills. It isn't just a slightly reddish dot of light in the night sky.
It is a place we can go, if we just decide to do it.
Oh, it won't be easy. And it will be dangerous, especially for the first people to go. Like the Moon, people would not be able to go out for a stroll in their shirtsleeves. They will need protective suits and breathing apparatus. Habitats will have to be built to enable human beings to live and work there.
It will also be much more expensive to send human beings to Mars than it was to land Curiosity there which, as was pointed out during the coverage last night, cost just seven dollars per man, woman, and child in the United States. Which, in the grand scheme of things, isn't much.
It will be worth it, though. Worth every penny and every ounce of danger. But, as one JPL official said during the press conference held shortly after the landing, all it really takes is "the passion for adventure". It was more than evident last night that the team responsible for sending Curiosity to Mars and landing it safely has that passion.
If you didn't get to see it last night (or very early this morning, depending on where you are), here is the scene in the control room as data arrived conforming the landing of Curiosity: