Mars Science Laboratory Touches Down Tonight

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Nowadays everyone calls it the “Curiosity rover,” but I got to know it as the Mars Science Laboratory, and I’m too old and set in my ways to switch. Launched on November 26, 2011, the mission is scheduled to land on Mars’s Gale Crater tonight/tomorrow morning: 5:31 UTC, which translates to 1:30 a.m. Eastern time or 10:20 p.m. Pacific. See here and here for info about where to watch. Between this and the Higgs boson, the universe is clearly conspiring to keep science enthusiasts on the East Coast from getting a proper night’s sleep.

NASA has done a great job getting people excited about the event, and one of their big successes has been this video, “Seven Minutes of Terror.” Love the ominous soundtrack.

Mars is about fourteen light-minutes away from Earth, so scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory aren’t actually able to fine-tune the spacecraft’s approach, like you used to do playing Lunar Lander in the arcade back in the day. Everything has to be carefully programmed well ahead of time, setting up an elaborately choreographed series of events that guides the lander through the seven-minute journey from the top of the Martian atmosphere to eventual touchdown. I still struggle with parallel parking, which is why I’m a theoretical physicist and not a JPL engineer.

Written By: Sean Carroll
continue to source article at blogs.discovermagazine.com

49 COMMENTS

  1. Watching a live NASA broadcast right now. First exhilarated, then disappointed. 

    I am a huge fan of NASA. This was a wonderful accomplishment, a feat of ingenuity. There were a few international institutions involved, but of course this is mainly a NASA accomplishment. But why do the NASA leaders concentrate on this being about American political leadership? Nothing but childish flag waving. According to NASA, this wasn’t a feat of humanity. Contrary to what their international associates thought, this was less about science, but more about creating a political triumph for American forces, all in order to prove how American leadership makes this world a better place. 

    According to NASA, screw the other countries, the USA just made the planet better. Although no war ended. No hungry child received food. No pandemia was contained. NASA got us to Mars, so the world should submit to American leadership. 

    This is why the USA has trouble having friends. It doesn’t want them, it wants subordinates. Even for the brightest minds of the USA, blind patriotic hubris and despising foreign allies is apparantly inherent. Childishly proud before this, now I’m sad that I even live next to an institution taking even a small part of this political mission to claim Mars for the USA, not for human kind.

  2. ColdThinker, there is some of that, but I think you are being a bit harsh, overall. First you have to understand the first rule of NASA; it goes “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Every time NASA gets any kind of win, they need to pump the emotions of the US public so they can get funding.

    Second, the landing operation was almost entirely funded and accomplished by the US contribution. The international science part is just about to start now that the instruments are on the planet surface.

    I am sorry if you think NASA/JPL is too happy about what they did. People I know on the project have been under terrific stress to make this happen; they came through, and I think we can cut them some slack.

  3. This is a huge accomplishment for science and engineering. It just goes to show what mankind can do and science seems to be a great medium for bringing people together and motivating them to come up with ingenious ways of solving problems. I was watching NASA TV for most of the morning. I think I cheered as loudly as those at JPL when the news came through that Curiosity had made a successful touch down. Congratulations to all involved in this fantastic achievement and I look forward to the exciting science in the future from this mission. Science is fantastic.

  4. Quine, let me clarify.
    I understand your first point, and perhaps it was the prolonged stress and need for future government funding talking. But it is regrettable that it has to be like that in the US. Success and accomplishment is nothing, it’s defeating and dominating others what counts. It seems this cheap military rhetoric sells even science. They came close to gloating over the sad failures of the previous ESA and Russian missions. Sorry to succumb to Godwin’s law, but to a European it was like “USA über alles”. Can you imagine how Napoleonic it would be if upon finding the Higgs boson, a Cern administrator proclaimed that Switzerland or the EU should rule the world? 

    Your second point is pretty much what I already said. Of course it’s the brilliance, knowledge and experience of NASA that brought this science laboratory to Mars, and that was an incredible feat of human ingenuity that made me very excited from the first time I saw the animated video of the planned landing last year. Americans can and should be proud of this, even if they just watched it on the TV. 

    Your last point is mistaken. There is absolutely nothing of the joy I wish to take away. I was in tears myself when the landing succeeded. As I said, it is so incredible that my fellow humans can accomplish this. But alas, NASA administrators told me that they’re not my fellows, I shouldn’t share in this joy, since it wasn’t about human intelligence, advancing human knowledge or about the hard work of the brilliant minds in this mission and centuries before to bring us this far. No, it was about advancing American global politics (some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t). This is what spoiled the magical science moment I was waiting for all year.

  5. An impressive technical feat, and I’ve no doubt there will be some amazing scientific results to come. I do, however, have one concern about the choice of Gale crater as a landing site…

    The primary mission is scheduled for 2 years, in which I’ve no doubt a great deal of science will be done. Opportunity rover was scheduled for just a 90 day mission, and is still going 8 years later. Curiousity actually has enough plutonium for 14 years. It may be that the confines of Gale crater will provide sufficient material for 14 years worth of mission…….and the concern is that it will have to, because even if Curiousity ends up travelling over 100 miles, that will all have to be within the crater as the walls are too steep to allow exit.

  6. Whilst I disagree with your sentiment, I was a little annoyed at a blooper made at JPL by the political representative for the Whitehouse, when he said that the US was the only nation to have succesfully landed probes on other planets. Though it only transmitted for 20 seconds, the Russian ‘Mars 3′ was actually the first successful landing on Mars….and of course the Russians are so far the only nation to  have landed a probe on Venus.

  7. Just started teaching my students a little programming (a little is all I can do) apparently 1/2 million lines of code required to land that thing.  A lot to go wrong.  That a syntax error didn’t make its way in there somewhere is a testament to how far we’ve come.  Not bad for a bunch of apes eh? 

  8. That two year delay (it was supposed to launch in 2009 and land in 2010) allowed them to check and triple-check everything. It ensured success, which is great. The downside is that the ‘launch a new probe every two years’ goal has failed due to lack of funding. There’s nothing in the pipeline for the next launch window.

  9. @Schrodinger‘s Cat

    I was a little annoyed at a blooper made at JPL by the political representative for the Whitehouse, when he said that the US was the only nation to have succesfully landed probes on other planets. Though it only transmitted for 20 seconds, the Russian ‘Mars 3′ was actually the first successful landing on Mars….and of course the Russians are so far the only nation to  have landed a probe on Venus.

    If we are getting our history right, the first extraterrestrial wheeled rover, was the Russian Lunokhod 1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L

    I was one of a group of UK scientists who went to look at back-up/mock-up versions of Venera, Lunokhod, Vostok etc in Moscow, when the Russians decided to show them off to the world in 1973.

  10. “….and the concern is that it will have to, because even if Curiousity
    ends up travelling over 100 miles, that will all have to be within the
    crater as the walls are too steep to allow exit.”

    Are you sure about that? I asked the same question when I knew it was going to land at the bottom of a crater, but the aerial photos seem to indicate that there are viable escape routes, should it so be decided.

  11. “Nowadays everyone calls it the ‘Curiosity rover’, …got to know it as the MSL,…to old and set in my ways to switch.”

    With all due respect, we’re not talking about switching coffee brands here.  There was a NASA contest for school children to name the new MSL.  Excellent way to get kids at least aware of space happenings. ‘Curiosity’ is a name born of enthusiasm, let us revel in it, for who knows how many kids were inspired “to infinity, and beyond!”?

  12. Well done Americans! It is undoubtedly a most remarkable achievement.

    I bet there are claws that will enable it to pull itself out of the crater when its initial mission is acomplished.

  13. It traveled over 1/2 billion km, and landed 2km from the center of the target area. Amazingly good job.

    Re the jingoism, I feel it is necessary (and uplifting, personally) to demonstrate that the US can still produce something beyond ignorant opinionated redneck politics.

  14. I remember that period well…..I spent my teen years living in the shadow of Jodrell Bank while Dad worked there. I recall the Russians were a bit miffed when Jodrell Bank announced their Lunar success before they could do so..

  15. As an aside, I chuckled at the co-mingling of metric and standard units of measurement in the video.  It reminded me of a time when I was given a double-sided ruler and told (while flipping it), “science, not science.” :-j

    Mike

  16. Sample
    As an aside, I chuckled at the co-mingling of metric and standard units of
    measurement in the video.  It reminded me of a time when I was given a
    double-sided ruler and told (while flipping it), “science, not science.”

    You would think they would have learned!

    http://nsc.nasa.gov/SFCS/Syste… –

    September 23, 1999;  The Mars Climate Orbiter approached Mars 170km too close to the surface; atmospheric forces are believed to have destroyed the spacecraft.

     Proximate cause:
    -Ground software used English units, while onboard software worked in metric.  The discrepancy caused errors in the trajectory calculations which sent the spacecraft too close to Mars.

  17. There is now a  colour image showing gale crater:

    Gale Crater Vista, in Glorious Color
    This is the first
    360-degree panorama in color of the Gale Crater landing site taken by
    NASA’s Curiosity rover. The panorama was made from thumbnail versions of
    images taken by the Mast Camera.

    Scientists will be taking a
    closer look at several splotches in the foreground that appear gray.
    These areas show the effects of the descent stage’s rocket engines
    blasting the ground. What appeared as a dark strip of dunes in previous,
    black-and-white pictures from Curiosity can also be seen along the top
    of this mosaic, but the color images also reveal additional shades of
    reddish brown around the dunes, likely indicating different textures or
    materials.

    The images were taken late Aug. 8 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT)
    by the 34-millimeter Mast Camera. This panorama mosaic was made of 130
    images of 144 by 144 pixels each. Selected full frames from this
    panorama, which are 1,200 by 1,200 pixels each, are expected to be
    transmitted to Earth later. The images in this panorama were brightened
    in the processing. Mars only receives half the sunlight Earth does and
    this image was taken in the late Martian afternoon.

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pa

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