A year ago Mars was about to be invaded! A laser equipped, nuclear powered tank was about to land on the Red Planet. It’s mission was to conquer the planet and discover all it could about our fiery neighbour. The small probe carrying this tank launched from Earth on November 26th 2011. The tank I refer to was in the belly of this probe. I refer to, of course, the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity as it is more commonly known. A new rover created by Nasa, it is about the size of a small car and it is the largest rover to have been landed on Mars to date. It is powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generator and totes a laser for blasting rock samples. A year ago however, it wasn’t yet clear if the rover would actually make it to Mars. Preparations were being made for the landing which was to take place some time between the 5th and 6th of August 2012.
The landing was to be fraught with danger. It was to use a new landing technique which involved a flying sky crane! I wont go into the details here, however it was a miracle of engineering. For me, one of the most fascinating elements of the entire approach and landing was that it would be all over before Nasa received the first transmission. Due to the distance between Earth and Mars, all transmissions take approximately 15 minutes to arrive. The entire landing and approach took 7 minutes – 7 minutes of terror as the engineers termed it! Check out the video below, it’s an excellent short docudrama that describes the entire process of approach and landing and is well worth watching.
I made it a point to follow the progress of Curiosity’s journey to the Red Planet and was eager to follow the landing itself. Circumstances dictated that, where I live, it would be early in the morning when the landing took place. I tuned in to the live streaming from mission control to follow the progress. It was a bizarre event since we couldn’t actually see the lander or visualise what was going on. We had to rely on the interpretation of information flowing in from the lander’s transmissions. As the entry and landing began I could feel the excitement, the drama, the anticipation. It was infectious and was more exciting than a Hollywood blockbuster. I was watching and hearing history being made! Would Curiosity make it? Would Nasa have a new rover on the Red Planet? Or would it disintegrate and become a barely notable mix of vaporised elements in Mar’s upper atmosphere? I felt as if I was there, I wanted to encourage the engineers, experts and scientists. I wanted to tell them “Come on guys, it’s the last step, we’re almost there”. All I could do though was watch in awe and anticipation. The excitement grew as the rover approached the surface, but it was a subdued tense excitement – everyone was concentrating on the rover and what was being reported back. Finally the confirmation came – a new rover was on Mars, Curiosity had arrived safe and sound! At mission control the tension finally collapsed and exploded into a rapture of excitement and celebration. I felt their joy and wanted to hug them and shake their hand. I must admit that it was such an emotional event that a tear came to my eye!
Curiosity was confirmed down and safe on Mars on 6th August 2012 at 07:30 CET. It landed well within its target landing ellipse in Gale Crater near its eventual destination, Mount Sharp. After all checks were carried out, it was found that the rover was in good health and that there was only very minor damage caused during the landing. The real science could now begin. In the year that has passed Curiosity has been carrying out its primary mission of investigating Mars and trying to determine if it could have once supported microbial life. It has been making its way around Gale Cater and is now turning its attentions to its primary objective of Mount Sharp. The science so far has been very successful and Curiosity’s mission has been extended indefinitely beyond its original 2 year mission.
Undoubtedly Nasa has another success on its hands. Curiosity is a worthy successor and companion to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers sent about 10 years ago. In fact, while Spirit succumbed in 2010, Opportunity is still going strong! Such has been the success of these missions that Nasa has been given the go-ahead to place another rover on Mars in 2020.
You see dear reader, for me these are the events that are important and worth celebrating. They are not achievements of a company, an agency or even a country. They are humanity’s achievements and it is important that we acknowledge this. These are the first steps to putting boots on Mars and ensuring humanity grows and evolves. I hope I’m still around when that happens. I want to feel the awe and excitement that viewers must have felt when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong spoke his famous first words.
Happy anniversary Curiosity and well done Nasa. You are my heroes!
My friends, I’ll leave you with a quote from H.G. Well’s “The War of The Worlds” to ponder on:
“…across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
Isn’t it ironic that the roles are reversed – we’re the invaders and the Red Planet is the apple of our eye!