Monday, August 6, 2012

Exploring with Curiosity

Late last night, the NASA "Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)" mission gently landed its fully robotic "Curiosity" rover in a crater on Mars. It was launched on November 26, 2011. The rover is aptly named.
The mission's primary purpose is to determine whether Mars could ever have supported life, but this does not yet extend to detecting current life itself. 

This is by far the largest rover to date: 10 feet long (not including the arm), 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall, weighing 2000 pounds. If you’re having a tough time visualizing that, it's about the size of a typical car.
The mere landing of a vehicle this size, not to mention the execution of its experiments, will be a veritable marvel of modern mathematics, science, technology and engineering. The landing sequence had multiple steps addressing various challenges (some introduced by prior steps), designed to slow the vehicle from 13,000 mph upon hitting the thin atmosphere to a soft landing in 7 minutes, each of which had to work flawlessly or the whole enterprise would fail! Furthermore, because it takes 14 minutes for electromagnetic signals to travel one way between Earth and Mars, the entire landing had to have been accomplished via autonomous robotics, without any direct human intervention. By the time mission control received indications of entry into the thin Martian atmosphere, the Curiosity rover had already been sitting on the surface of Mars for at least 7 minutes. Yikes!
If interested, take a look at the following two videos about the astounding landing sequence:
"Video: Curiosity's Landing" a simple, excellent, non-narrated video -- just gets your heart racing!
"Video: Curiosity's Seven Minutes ofTerror" which is narrated by JPL scientists; includes fascinating context about the design decisions that had to be made.

Another good site is"Fast Facts" which includes basic info, simply presented, with links for digging deeper.

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