Are you curious about Curiosity?

On Monday morning I was sitting in front of my computer monitor watching NASA TV with much trepidation and excitement.  Of course I was watching the control room of NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in anticipation of the Curiosity Rovers landing on the red planet.  As you already know it was successful and spelled out a new era of science that was before only a figment of imagination or science fiction.  I feel obviously compelled to speak on the subject of surely mans greatest accomplishment of the 21st century and will continue to follow closely the Mars rover as it begins its mission.  So lets get started.

What makes this so amazing?  Well, put quite simply the scale and ingenuity of it all.  We are talking about a piece of machinery the size of a Mini Cooper (small car) that contains 17 cameras, 10 types of scientific tools for experimentation and 6 wheels to manoeuvre the martian landscape.  It is by far the biggest and most heaviest of any object sent to Mars.  It was launched 8 and a half months ago and only on Monday morning at 06.31am (BST) did it complete its 350 million mile trip and land perfectly in a crater which also made it the most accurate landing to date.  The probe containing the rover hit the martian atmosphere going around 13,000 mph and slowed down to zero within 7 minutes that were aptly named ‘the seven minutes of terror’ by the JPL team.  Using friction produced by its heat shield then a parachute the probe managed to slow itself down to about 200mph before detaching the sky-crane which held the actual rover. With the sky-cranes rockets they slowed down to hover speed and lowered the rover down using cables before flying off and crashing after the rover had successfully landed and detached.  This landing is the first of its kind and NASA literally did not know whether it would work or not, some estimated a 40% success rate.  But it did, at 06.31am the rover sent back its data to the JPL HQ and they confirmed it had landed to an amazing reaction which included myself jumping with excitement.  The rover even tweeted upon landing “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!.”  Sending an object this size that far is such an accomplishment and landing it in a totally new and innovative way makes it even more amazing.  Previous landings involved literally crashing to the surface with airbags for cushioning.

The first pictures beamed back to earth were low resolution and quite debris ridden as they were taken by the rovers hazard cameras which had the dust caps still on and not surprisingly were covered in said dust.  However the pictures were amazing as it was visual confirmation of the successful landing and over the next few weeks the pictures will get bigger, better and more clearer.  The hazard cameras are as their name suggests are small cameras at the bottom of the rover to detect hazards upon landing and manoeuvring.  It then has NAV cams on its mast which it uses for navigating the landscape and moving to its desired locations.  On its robotic arm it has another higher resolution camera (MAHLI) which it uses for examining rocks and other samples that the arm picks up.  Finally also on its mast it has the Mastcam which is a high resolution camera capable of panoramic and true colour pictures of the martian landscape.    Over the next few weeks and years we will get the best pictures of Mars to date and the best picture samples of its terrain, rock layers and soil.

The rover contains many scientific instrumentation including x-ray imagers and an actual laser that will break down rocks from as far away as 7 metres and allow in depth study of the rocks make up and general composition as well as maybe any fossilised or living organisms.  After all that is one of the rovers primary missions, the study of whether life was, could have been or is living on Mars.  The Viking missions back in the 70’s drew conclusive evidence of life having existed on Mars by the studying of carbon emissions from the soil samples.  However another study at the time disagreed although years later said that their tests were not sensitive enough which means that the previous test could have indeed been right.  Curiosity will finally give the conclusive proof of whether or not the scientists in the 70’s were right or not and maybe prove once and for all the organic history of Mars.

There is much I could say about this mission and I plan to over the coming weeks, including a rebuke of the opinion of some to be that the mission is a waste of money.  But for now I will leave this as the introduction to the latest in the long line of NASA’s scientific breakthroughs and over the coming weeks I will keep you updated with what is going on with the rover and some healthy debates of all things Mars related.  Remember to keep posted with Curiosity on its twitter feed @MarsCuriosity.

‘The day we stop as human beings being curious and willing to learn new things is the day we stop being human.’

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