New scientific discoveries get me excited, they really do. After discovering the awesome Science Daily I found myself losing hours in research papers that show cased everything from new discoveries with great potential to good old fashioned applications of science that were already producing benefits for everyone involved. Of course it gets a whole lot more exciting when that science is being conducted on an entirely different planet so you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Curiosity had discovered something amazing, something that had could have been “history in the making”.
It’s one thing for space and science nuts like me to get excited about these kinds of things, we usually know what to expect and the confirmation of it is what gets us all giddy, but its another thing entirely for the rest of the world to start getting excited about it. You see what started out as a couple posts on my feed reader with a couple scientists on the Curiosity team eventually mutated into dozens and when I saw that Australian TV programs were covering it I knew that it had gotten out of hand. It’s not that this was wholly unexpected, the public interest in Curosity has been the highest I’ve seen since the Spirit and Opportunity first touched down on Mars, but I knew that this fever pitch over the potential ground breaking news would inevitably lead to public disappointment no matter how significant the find was.
To put it in perspective Curiosity has a very distinct set of capabilities, most of them targeted towards imaging and the study of the composition of the things it comes across. Much of the speculation I read about Curiosity’s find centred around the idea that it had detected life in some form or another which would truly be earth shattering news. However Curiosity just isn’t set up to do that in the way most people think it is as its microscopes are simply not capable of imaging microbes directly. The only way it could detect signs of life would be through the on-board laboratory using its mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph and laser spectrometer and even then it would only detect organic compounds (like methane) which is a good, but not certain, indication of life.
Unfortunately whilst the scientists had done their best to try and down play what the result might actually be the damage has been done as the public’s expectations are wildly out of alignment with what it could actually be. It’s annoying as it doesn’t help the image of the greater scientific community when things like this happen and it’s unfortunately become a semi-regular occurrence. I can really blame the scientists for this one, they really are working on a historic mission that will further our understanding of Mars and many other things, but care has to be taken to avoid these kinds of situations in the future. Hopefully the media will also refrain from sensationalising science to the point where the story no longer matches the reality, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
For what its worth though I’m still looking forward to whatever it is they found out we’re still only in the beginning of Curiosity’s mission, meaning there’s plenty more science to be done and many more discoveries to be had. Whilst they might not be the amazing things that the media might have speculated them to be they will still be exciting for the scientific community and will undoubtedly further our understanding in many different areas. Hopefully this will be the only PR debacle of Curiosity’s mission as I’d hate to have to write a follow up post.
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.
The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are by far one the most successful mission we’ve ever had on another planet. Designed for a total mission time of only 90 days they have gone on to outlive that deadline numerous times over and if it weren’t for an insidious soil trap they’d both still be running today. Whilst Opportunity might still be running a good 7 years after it made planet fall that doesn’t mean that it’s capable of performing all the tasks we want to do and so NASA has been busy designing a replacement rover. It’s quite something to behold and it just recently hit a very important milestone.
The next rover’s official name (dubbed Curiosity in a contest to name it, much like its predecessors) is the Mars Science Laboratory and considering its payload that’s fairly apt. Compared to the Mars Exploration Rovers it’s quite the beast being 5 times more massive and carrying 10 times the scientific payload. To put that in perspective the MSL will be about the same size as the Mini Cooper, the MERs combined would only equal it in length. Such size does present some challenges for getting it down on Mars however, but the guys at NASA have devised a really ingenious way of making sure it arrives safely.
Many are familiar with the way that the MERs made their landing on Mars. They used a combination of aero-breaking (basically parachutes) combined with inflatable bags on the outside that allowed them to bounce over the surface until they landed safely. The MSL is just too heavy for that kind of landing to work so NASA has devised a multi-stage descent that utilizes aero-breaking, retrorockets and a crane system to drop it safely on the surface. I could try and explain it to you but its far more impressive to see in video:
Compared to the way the MERs landed this does seem like an extremely overcomplicated way of landing but given the constraints it’s the best option available. NASA is stepping into unknown territory here so until the landing is confirmed I can see everyone being on tenterhooks.
Keen observers would have noticed something different about the MSL when compared to its MER cousins, most notably the distinct lack of solar panels. The MSL gets all of its power from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), the same device that’s powered Mars landers and the extremely long lived Voyager probes. These devices work by using the heat from radioactive decay of an element, usually enriched plutonium, and generating electricity via a thermocouple. The RTG on board Curiosity will generate around 125W of power when its launched, dropping to 100W only after 14 years in service. The mission time frame is slated for just under 2 earth years so the RTG is more than up to the job and there’s the tantalizing possibility that this particular rover could be working for a very long time to come.
The MSL’s payload is simply staggering so I won’t recreate it fully here but there are a few interesting pieces that I’d like to highlight. The first is the MastCam which is a high definition camera that will sit on top of Curosity’s mast. It’s able to take 1.92 megapixel images and 10fps 720p video in true colour, something that other rovers have had to fudge with their black and white cameras with colour filters. There’s also ChemCam which has an infrared laser capable of vaporizing rock at 7 meters then analysing the resulting plasma ball, which is just plain cool (lazers, IN SPACE!).
The milestone I was hinting at earlier was that the MSL has just been sealed up in its payload faring, ready for the trip to Mars:
With its launch window opening in less than two months, the Mars Science Laboratory was matched up with its heat shield at Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on Wednesday, Oct. 5.
The completed MSL rover, a.k.a. “Curiosity,” had already been fitted onto the “back shell powered descent vehicle” — a revolutionary landing mechanism that will first deploy parachutes to slow the capsule’s descent and then use rockets to hover above the Martian surface as it carefully lowers the one-ton rover down on cables before finally launching itself away to fall at a safe distance.
The launch is scheduled to happen between November 25th and December 18th this year with the rover reaching Mars sometime in August next year. After that it will begin its 1 martian year mission, which is just a hair under 700 earth days. With the rover being fitted into the fairing now it signals that NASA has quite a good shot at hitting that launch window, especially when they’re using the tried and true ATLAS V launch system.
Curiosity really is a testament to what NASA is capable of when they put their minds to it. Everything about the new rover is boundary pushing and I’m sure that much like its predecessors it’ll continue to serve NASA and humanity long after its initial mission is completed. It’s going to be agony waiting for the landing confirmation but we’ve got a year and a long trip through space before we have to start worrying about that.
Bar the shuttle there’s only been one mission in recent memory that has managed to capture the attention and imagination of nearly the entire world. That mission is the Mars Exploration Rovers, a pair of plucky little explorers that touched down on Mars almost 7 years ago today beginning a truly epic journey that lasted well past their expected lifetime. They also hold the crown of being conceived, built, launched and spending the better part of a decade on one of our closest neighbours in the universe in the time that it has taken Duke Nukem Forever to be developed. Their impact on the world and our understanding of the universe cannot be understated and it is with a sadden heart that I bring you this news today.
Even though they were, for all intents and purposes, identical twins Spirit always had the hardest time on our red sister. For the first couple years they were both chugging along quite well but in mid March 2006 Spirit’s front right wheel locked up and failed to respond. This meant that for most of its life Spirit was driving around backwards, dragging the dead wheel behind it. It was both a blessing and a curse to the little rover as the dragging meant it could image the crevices it was leaving behind, providing some insight that we weren’t expecting. There was a brief moment of excitement when the wheel began to respond again, but it soon stopped responding shortly after. The rear right wheel also suffered a similar fate several years later.
Then in 2009 Spirit became stuck in a soft patch of Mars soil. At the time it didn’t seem like a big of a deal, they’d been in similar situations before with both rovers and managed to free them successfully, but this one presented some major challenges. The soil was an insidious creation of mostly iron sulfate which has poor cohesion and is like quick sand to the rover’s wheels. NASA then spent 9 months testing various scenarios on earth in a desperate attempt to free the craft before the harsh martian winter before giving up and declaring Spirit a stationary research station.
With the rover stuck in the soil it was unable to orient its solar panels to a favourable angle in order to generate enough electricity to keep its components warm during Mars’ winter. This meant that once that time came it was likely that the rover’s electronics would be subjected to temperatures far below what it was designed to handle, likely killing it in the process. It’s the same problem that faced the Phoenix Lander and the unfortunate truth is that it didn’t survive the winter. Spirit went dark on March 22, 2010 and all attempts to contact it since then have been met silence. This means that the rover is no longer functioning, frozen in its final resting place.
Spirit may no longer be communicating with us but its mission lives on in its twin, Opportunity, and it’s future incarnation in the Mars Science Laboratory called Curiosity. There’s also the very real possibility that SpaceX will be launching a mission to Mars in the near future and that gives us the very real possibility that us humans could be meeting up with our robotic creations much sooner than we think. So while writing this article brought a tear to my eye I know that Spirit won’t be alone in the Martian soil for long and we’ll be seeing it again very soon.
So long Spirit.