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).
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.
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’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)
All of the worthy causes you listed point to better used of our funds. But, I land on the side of Curiosity, Nigel. There are better places to pull money to fund those needy causes.
As in the funds we currently send to known enemies and the OINK in our federal budget. Open a chat window on Yahoo! and type the following: :@). You’ll know what I mean.
When we as individuals stop learning, we stop growing. Surely the same applies to Curiosity on a grander scale.
“Land on the side of Curiosity” … very droll 😉
I don’t think I’m going to check out :@) I’m sure I would blow a fuse!
Hope the road trip is still going well 🙂
I agree with Gloria. We could fund it (and a lot more) by cutting out the funds we spend to support the country-club lifestyles of incarcerated prisoners or those we spend for health insurance and welfare for illegal aliens, among other things.
Hi David. I think I’d also have to question the special health plans, retirement packages etc that are piled on the people in government who are supposedly “serving our country” while those people do genuinely do serve our country are left wanting.
It would be fun to make the Curiosity travel to the crashing site of the rocket crane.
Wow. Yesterday, I was wondering how you were doing as I played with guitar loops in Garageband, and today you comment on my blog. Weird. Restored any guitars lately?
I guess they might be interested to go in that direction because it will have dug up some of the surface, but one the other hand there will be debris, something they want to avoid at all costs. I’m sure they’ll publish a plan or a map soon.
Definitely worth it! I love showing my six year twins the pics and video from this rover and saying “look, we can do anything we set our mind to!” That, to me, is priceless.
That’s excellent! I’m really glad to hear people are using this event to interest kids in the worlds around us. Anything that stirs the imagination of a child is, as you say, priceless.
There is a 360 degree view that you can scroll around. I can’t find it on the NASA site, but it’s available at
Something else kids might enjoy.
I share your mixed feelings on this, Nigel. On the one hand, it’s cool because it’s robots and space, and learning about Mars and stuff. And as you said, it keeps many people employed. On the other hand, I do think that the money invested could have gone towards a lot of other things that would have had a much quicker and more widespread payoff, like schools, hospitals, national infrastructure, etc. But those projects just aren’t as sexy as rovers on Mars.
Also, I must be slow today because it took me a while to get the joke in your header. After many minutes of pondering, I finally got it: “OH!! Because curiosity killed the cat, so if there are cats on Mars…”
Hi Madame Weebles
Ha! I pondered the idea of doing a skit on the curiosity kills the cat theme. Maybe I’ll keep that as a (not so) secret surprise for when the rover starts moving.
More seriously, I agree that there are many worthy causes, but as heartless as it sounds, would $2.5bn over 15 years make that much difference? For example, that’s about 40 teachers per state. Vastly more than that is spent on all those causes, and I doubt a small delta would make much difference. We would therefore sacrifice any chance of learning more of the universe we live in. But it’s a tough call.
Nigel, I think the moneys spent for the Curiosity is more than worth it (as if you couldn’t tell my my post!) Every time we’ve gone into space, we’ve learned so much about ourselves and our environment those things alone would be worth it. Add in the developments that come from men and women working out the details of how to land a rover 150 million miles away – well, it’s darn cheap! Great post!
Ha! I would have been shocked if you said you didn’t like Curiosity give the name of your blog! I agree that we do learn a lot about ourselves as we go into space. It helps me see ourselves in a bigger context, makes me even more appreciative of the jewel on which we live.
Fascinating! I love that it’s called “Curiosity.” But I think I would rather see us put that money toward our school system, like you said, and help those in need here on our own planet. That’s an aweful lot of money to just go probing around.
Ha, it could have gone to making a waterproof computer, maybe?
I think space is one of the last unknown frontiers for humanity and the sooner we can understand more of it, the sooner we can make additional progress. Great post! Love seeing stuff like this.
I think you’re right, we need to keep exploring new frontiers. How else would America have grown? But there may be many more frontiers, the oceans, the mass of dimensions physicists juggle, and the bottom of my sock drawer to name a few!