Tomorrow night, PDT, early Monday morning EDT, Rover Curiosity will land on Mars. This one-ton vehicle, about the size of an SUV, will spend (time) exploring the surface of the planet, driving around like a tourist, taking pictures and videos, soil and atmosphere samples which it will process in its on board lab. The purpose of all this is to determine the existence of conditions to support microbial life including the chemical ingredients of life. What a remarkable achievement. The mission is managed by the folks at the Jet Propulsion Lab, or JPL as it is affectionately called. JPL is located in Pasadena, CA.
The trip is a short one in inter-stellar travel time. The vehicle took 8 months to make the 350 million mile journey. Lots of frequent flyer miles there. If humans ever get to go make sure you get a window seat. Pales in comparison, though, to the two Voyager spacecraft which left Earth in 1977 to visit the outer reaches of the solar system. They have travelled 90 billion miles and just arrived a few months ago. Lots of frequent flyer bonus miles there.
Rover Curiosity is on board a spacecraft called the Mars Science Laboratory and its job is to get Rover Curiosity there and safely landed. This will be a most difficult undertaking, and perilous to say the least. Touchdown is scheduled for 10:31 p.m. PDT on Sunday night, 1:31 a.m. EDT, Monday morning. NASA already has two satellites observing Mars close up. The Mars Odyssey Orbiter will provide communications during the landing since the Earth will have set beneath Mars’ horizon, about two minutes before landing, just like the Sun sets below our horizon. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter watches the weather on Mars and already knows that there will be a dust storm in Southern Mars but will be dissipating as the landing process begins.
Now here is the scary part. As we write, Curiosity is on final approach at a speed of 8,000 miles per hour. As it finds Mars’ gravitational field it will speed up to over 13,000 miles per hour. The three part sky crane will slowly deploy parachute like structures. The craft has to bleed off 12,999 miles per hour since it has to touch down at 1 mile per hour so as not to sustain damage to itself and its lab instruments. All this takes place in the last 7 minutes of the flight! And in the last twenty two minutes of flight Curiosity will be out of radio contact due to Mars’ gravitational force and atmospheric conditions. The folks at JPL will be at their consoles and control stations waiting for the landing signal in the blind. A nail biter!The Curiosity mission will last a Martian year, which is two Earth years.
I like the name of this vehicle: Rover Curiosity. Humans are curious by nature. We want to know more about things. We want to know what is in that locked box in Grandpa’s cellar, what’s over the next hill, The Wright Brothers were curious, so was Henry Ford, Guglielmo Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell, Jonas Salk, Thomas Edison, just to name a few. And yes, we can add Columbus, Magellan, Galileo, who figured out the Sun did not move, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein who played with light and gravity, and last but not least my favorite science rock star, Benjamin Franklin. So let’s all hope and pray that the mission will successful, that the sky crane JPL designed to let Rover Curiosity down safely will work. Let’s applaud all the scientists and engineers at JPL and NASA for an American achievement, and honor their and all Curiosities.