Monday, August 06, 2012

NASA rover Curiosity lands on Mars after plummet

From the AP via the Houston Chronicle:

The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into "seven minutes of terror" as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph.

In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2 mph.

The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $2.5 billion, Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries.

Over the next two years, Curiosity will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive. It's the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet's history.

The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 352 million miles. The trickiest part of the journey? The landing. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a ton, engineers drummed up a new and more controlled way to set the rover down.

More here.

I've been blowing off NASA events for many years now, and I fully planned on blowing off this one, too. But I got home from work, logged onto facebook, and a buddy of mine had posted a link to a live stream of mission control for the Curiosity landing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. So I watched for a few minutes, and the timing for all this was perfect. Not ten minutes or so into my viewing, I heard a voice say "Touchdown confirmed," followed by the traditional mission control applause that I hadn't really seen since I was a kid back in the mid 70s. Then the first image from Curiosity's cameras came online, just a shot of the rover's wheel and some Martian sand.

But it was cool. Very cool.

More mission control applause. Then I looked at my facebook newsfeed and realized that a lot of my friends were paying attention to this, too. Lots of congratulatory messages, celebratory messages. I got in on the act, myself, posting a status report: Back to Mars! I posted Holst's "Mars, Bringer of War." I clicked "like" on every friend's Mars post I encountered. For a few minutes, and even now while I write this, it's dawning on me that not only watching the live stream, but also sharing the moment online with many others, has lifted temporarily my cynicism about humanity.

We humans are great, when we want to be. We can accomplish amazing things. We can build and create at least as well as we can destroy and kill. And we can all be a part of the triumph because of our incredible computer and communications technology. This is the future I dreamed of when I was a boy watching Skylab missions, watching the Apollo/Soyuz docking.

We need a lot more of this shit. It might save us all.