Monday, August 6, 2012


In the unlikely event there are living creatures on Mars, if one of them happened to be in the vicinity of the "Gale Crater" an earth day ago, it would have been surprised by the sight of a large silver object floating down from the sky.  As the large silver object neared the surface, a loud sound would have filled the very thin air as retro-rockets fired to softly land a foreign beast on the ground.

That foreign beast is the Curiosity rover that has finally arrived at Mars and against all the odds has successfully reached the surface in one piece.  In recent years it seems like most of the United States attempts to land a space craft on Mars have been successful, but the reality is that less than half of all tries since the 1960's have succeeded.

Through out Sunday evening, both Zack and I patiently checked the Internet to see the status of the Curiosity landing.  We were both eager to understand whether or not this spacecraft would survive it's risky descent to the Red Planet.  What is so extraordinary about this spacecraft is the fact that it is the largest object that has ever been landed on Mars.  It is the size of a small car and weighs about one ton.  In the grand scheme of things here on earth that is probably considered pretty small.  But for it have made it though the great distance between the Earth and Mars and then survive entry into the Martian atmosphere is pretty remarkable.

Additionally, if you read the details of how NASA was landing this thing on the surface you would have thought it had been dreamed up by a mad scientist.  Because the rover is so big and ungainly, they couldn't use the tried and true mechanisms of either airbags or rocket landers.  Instead they came up with this new funky mechanism called a sky crane.  Literally this was something out of a science fiction movie and the dudes and dudettes at NASA actually made it work.   If you want more details on the sky crane, you'll need to read it on NASA's website or in the MSM as I don't want to try and describe it here.  For a good drawing and description you can see this page on the NASA website:

(How absolutely cool is this photo?  This is a picture of Curiosity descending to the Martian surface on it's parachute.  This picture was taken by the NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has circled Mars since 2006.)

What's all of this going to prove?  Is Curiosity supposed to find life on Mars?  Nope - I don't think it is going to find life, nor do I think it is going find evidence of past life.  The goal of Curiosity it to continue the investigation started by it's predecessors Spirit and Opportunity and determine what the climate on Mars once was like.  Through this continuing investigation of prior climates on Mars, scientists will gain a much better understanding of Mars and it's history.  This in turn will provide a strong foundation for any future missions that look for evidence of any past or current life on Mars.  Additionally, this kind of research will help us better understand our own planet and the changes that it is going through. 

Why is any of this important to me?  Well, call it a recollection of fond childhood thoughts.  You see when I was 10 years old in the glory days of the US Space Program the United States pulled off a major coup by landing not one but two probes on the Martian surface.  Those two probes Viking I and Viking II proved that Mars was reachable.  If we could put these 2 landers down at different places on Mars when our competition - The Soviet Union couldn't get anything there, then it seemed like it would only be a few years until our astronauts were walking the surface of Mars.  So as is typical for a 10 year old Mars thrilled and fascinated me.  I had pictures and topographic maps of the Red Planet plastered to my walls.  I imagined going there an exploring the wide open spaces and fantastic landscapes. 

If you didn't know this, Mars is home to some pretty big landscapes!  It has the tallest mountain in the solar system - Olympus Mons.  This volcanic mountain is over 3 times as high as Mount Everest!  On top of having the tallest mountain, Mars also has the deepest and longest canyon in the solar system - Valles Marineris.  Both Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris are proof that Mars was once geologically active as Olympus Mons is an extinct volcano and Valles Marineris is an ancient rift valley.  An all of this glorious geography is on Mars!!

Though almost 40 years have passed since the Viking missions and no human has yet to set foot on Mars, it still has the ability to cause flights of fancy and dreams of roving the Martian landscape.  I hope that Curiosity will provide Zack with the same kind of imagination and thoughts as occurred to me all those long years ago.  I don't hold out any thoughts that Zack would ever be an astronaut and walk on Mars, but I do believe with his love of psychics, astonomy and space exploration he could one day help design a science package that is sent on another Mars mission.  Or maybe he could be the science lead for a 2030 Mars Rover. (And by the way - if some one is going to walk on Mars in either my life time or Zack's life time, I hate to admit it but they are going to be Chinese - not American.  Sorry America, we might continue to send robotic space probes to Mars, but our national will to send people to Mars just doesn't match up with the realities of what it is going to cost.  So we were the first to the moon, but the Chinese are going to be first to Mars.  That's why they have their little test space station up there floating in the cosmos.)

I hope the national news media keeps Curiosity in the spot light as it begins it's journey of discovered across the Gale Crater.  Hopefully another mass shooting or some scandal involving Tom Cruise or Kim Kardashian doesn't drive this story from the headlines.  (There is no insensitivity meant by the statement about mass shooting, I am just saying hopefully there won't be any like what we have seen in the last 2 weeks!!  As for Tom and Kim - coverage of them will probably sell more advertising, so I guess it is a forgone conclusion they will get more coverage than will the Curiosity mission.  How sad!)

That's about it for this Monday.  As for day-to-day life - things are hectic as I am trying to get a ton done before I head to India on Friday.  It should be an interesting trip, but it isn't coming at the greatest of times.  Next week is Zack's school registration and hopefully the completion of most if not all of the work on the kitchen. 

Tonight when you go to bed take a look at the sky and see if you can see Mars.  From the Earthsky website  "in early August 2012, the planet Mars makes a conspicuous triangle in the southwest to west after sunset with two other objects – the planet Saturn and bright star Spica".  Even if you can't see Mars in the sky, just stop and think of what we as a species have placed on another planet and realize that through this effort we might gain a better understanding where we have come from.

And with that thought - thanks and peace to all! ~J.

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