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Unless you’ve been living on a different planet this past week, you must have heard about NASA’s latest Mars rover, Curiosity. Of course, if you were living on the red planet you might have been running away from the monster from the sky, as shown in theses two photos of the same spot.

Actually the argument over the “smudge” in the center of the left-hand picture, which had disappeared in the shot 40 mins later, has been resolved. It was debris from the impact of the sky crane, the end result of the remarkable “seven minutes of terror” landing process. And boy, what a process, hypersonic parachutes, rocket maneuvering, hovering and lowering the rover on a cable. I think there was a scene like that in Aliens.

The rover is a big beast – 2000lb and twice the size of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers (notice the guy seated on the right of the photo for scale).

Curiosity rover turning testing

Touchdown was 1.5 miles from the center of the target ellipse. That means Curiosity travelled 150 million miles at tens of thousand miles an hour and its trajectory was intersected, through a turbulent atmosphere, with a rotating, orbiting body to within the distance to the end of the street.

Curiosity descent to surface of mars, seven minutes of terror

Clearly this involved more than a little difficult maths, and equally clearly, if Andrew Hacker had his way, we wouldn’t have bothered getting out of bed in the first place. I’m sure it would have been easier to film it in a Hollywood warehouse (using cameras made by someones else, edited with software made by someone else, on computers made by someone else). Perhaps he could have used a few of his “maths graduates” to carry the buckets of red sand.

Curiosity is already sending pictures and data back to Earth. Its software is being updated to allow it to start roving. The following image is a normal perspective picture. I think it’s amazing to see a chunk of earth engineering on the surface of another planet, the flat field of rocks and the mountains in the distance.


Curiosity rover mountains and rocky plains

Curiosity’s predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity were designed to last 90 days. In the end, Spirit lasted 6 years and Opportunity recently started moving again after its fifth Martian winter. Incredibly, 8 years after it landed on Mars, Opportunity is still operating. Curiosity, however, is heavy duty industrial science compared to it pioneering predecessors. It carries ten times the mass of scientific instruments, is designed for a two year life, and will travel further in its question for knowledge.

Over the years, Spirit and Opportunity have been described as brave, plucky, and courageous. It’s hard to associate those kinds of sentiments with the (by comparison) tank-like Curiosity. Either way, I’m sure more than one at NASA are holding their breath, hoping Curiosity will last, prove its worth, and emerge from the shadow of its illustrious predecessors.

As ever, one of the big questions for anything to do with space is, is it worth it? The cost for the whole program is around $2.5b (according to Space News International). That’s not cheap. For that money we get some planetary knowledge, more to the puzzle of the possibility of life on other planets, and a lot of people get employed. The money could be spent on research into heart disease, cancer, alzheimer’s, diabetes, heck, we could even pay teachers a little more so our kids learn some maths. Or we could build more hospitals, or give out more food stamps, or support fledgling countries to help lift them out of poverty. These are all very good causes, and they make me question the “value” decision, but in the end I think political biases would spend the money on another bridge to nowhere, or something equally useful.

So, I come down on the side of saying Curiosity is worth it, but you could well accuse me of bias because I like science and engineering. You might be right. What do you think?



(Images courtesy of NASA)


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