The Mars Curse is the term used to describe the inordinately high failure rate for missions to our red celestial sister, particularly those that dare to touch the surface. It’s an inherently complicated mission as there are innumerable things that need to be taken into account in order to get something on the surface and a problem with any one of the systems can result in a total mission failure. One such mission that fell prey to this was the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2, a small lander that hitched a ride with the Mars Express craft all the way back in 2003. Shortly after it was sent down to the surface contact with the probe was lost and it was long thought it met its end at an unplanned disassembly event. However we’ve recently discovered that it made all the way down and even managed to land safely on the surface.
Like the Mars Exploration Rovers Beagle 2 would use the martian atmosphere to shed much of its orbital velocity, protected by its ablative heat shield. Once it approached more manageable speeds it would then deploy its parachutes to begin the final part of its descent, drifting slowly towards the target site. Then, when it was about 200m above the ground, it would deploy airbags around its outer shell to protect it from the impact when it hit the surface. Once on the ground it would then begin unfurling its solar panels and instrumentation, making contact with its parent orbiter once all systems were nominal. However back on that fateful day it never made contact and it was assumed the lander likely destroyed.
The information we now have points towards a different story. It appears that pretty much everything went according to plan in terms of descent which, as my very high level description of the process can attest to, is usually the part when things go catastrophically wrong. Instead it appears that Beagle 2 made it all the surface and began the process of deploying its instruments. However from what we can see now (which isn’t much given that the lander is some 2m across and our current resolution is about 0.3m/pixel) it appears that it didn’t manage to unfurl all of its solar panels which would have greatly restricted its ability to gather energy. My untrained eye can see what looks like 2 panels and the instrumentation pod which would leave it with about half the power it was expecting.
In my opinion though (which should be taken with a dash of salt since I’m not a rocket scientist) there must have been some damage to other systems, most likely the communications array, which prevented it from making initial contact. I’d assume that there was enough charge for it to complete it’s initial start up activities which should have been enough to make initial contact with the orbiter. Such damage could have occurred at any number of points during the descent and would explain why there was total silence rather than a few blips before it dropped off completely. Of course this is just pure speculation at this point and we’re not likely to have any good answers until we actually visit the site (if that will ever happen, I’m looking at you Mr Musk).
Still discovering Beagle 2’s final resting place is a great find for all involved as it shows what went right with the mission and gives us clues as to what went wrong. This information will inform future missions to the red planet and hopefully one day we can write off the Mars curse as simply a lack in our understanding of what is required for a successful interplanetary mission. Indeed the bevy of successful NASA missions in the past decade is a testament to this constant, self correcting trial and error process, one that is built on the understanding gleaned from those who’ve come before.
Whilst scientists and engineers aren’t the most superstitious of people emergent, inexplicable patterns can still make them uneasy in much the same way. The Mars Curse is one such pattern that has seen half of the missions that were destined for our red sister fail in some way, either in transport or shortly after arriving at their destination. You can then imagine the tension that the Mars Science Laboratory (commonly known as the Curiosity rover) team experienced as they started to make their final approach to Mars, especially considering how complicated their landing had to be. Yesterday saw the rover touch down safely on the Martian surface, much to the joy of everyone involved and those of us who were watching on.
For the first couple of days Curiosity is going to be spending most of its time validating systems and ensuring that communications back to Earth are stable. For those of you who were watching the live feed those first few images we saw came via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the very same orbiter that’s responsible for relaying all the data from them previous generation of Mars rovers. Curiosity has the capability to deliver a lot more data than those two little rovers combined and whilst Odyssey could relay that back it’s much more advantageous to use the higher bandwidth connection on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter even if it has to cache the data before sending it (hence why the MRO didn’t beam the first pictures back, it would’ve taken too long).
All of the pictures we’ve seen so far have been from underneath the rover and that’s primarily due to the system verification that’s taking place. The images come from the hazard cameras mounted on the underside of Curiosity and traditionally they’ll be used to identify potential obstacles so that the rover can navigate around them. This is why they’re not colour nor particularly high resolution but the good news is that Curiosity has probably the most impressive imaging hardware of any rover to date just waiting to be turned on. Probably the most exciting part about Curiosity’s main camera is the fact that it will be able to capture true colour images, something that past rovers have had to fudge with coloured filters and post processing (which get close, but aren’t true to life).
Curiosity’s mission is to investigate Mar’s past and see how conducive to life it might have been. It’s not directly looking for life on Mars, that kind of mission would require a whole other set of dedicated tools, but what it’s looking for are what we believe are the precursors for life as we know it. Additionally Curiosity will asses Mars’ current and past meteorological conditions, both for pure scientific reasons and also to provide information to possible future manned missions to Mars, something which SpaceX has expressed a keen interest in accomplishing within the next decade. Considering the size of the total payload, almost 900KG, I’m sure it will have no trouble accomplishing its primary mission and quite possibly much more thereafter.
Curiosity’s power source is a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator that’s quite capable of powering the rover for its planned 1 Martian year mission. Now whilst it might not have the solar panels of its predecessors its internal generator is good for 14 years at up to 80% of its peak power production meaning that Curiosity could well give Spirit and Opportunity a run for their money in terms of longevity. Considering just how many instruments are aboard this rover I can see an extended mission proving extremely valuable both in scientific terms as well as becoming the next symbol of NASA’s prowess when it comes to building amazing machines.
A friend of mine asked me this morning if I still had a smile on my face courtesy of NASA and in all honesty I did. I shed a tear when I heard the words “touch down” and shared in the revelry that went on in the Mission Support Area via the NASA TV live feed and just writing that sentence out was enough to bring back the feeling of excitement and joy I felt back then. Curiosity’s mission has only just begun but I can’t help but feel that its been a major success for all involved and I eagerly look forward to everything that this giant rover has to bring us.
It’s a great time for science, space and humanity.