Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Get curious with Curiosity

As NASA’s new rover Curiosity (aka 2011-070A) enters approach phase, the excitement continues to build up. I recently found a website that aims to expose the public to the exciting aspects of this mission. The site’s called Get curious and is sponsored by ‘explore Mars’ a non-profit organisation whose goal is to advocate sending humans to Mars in the next 2 decades. The site is also sponsored by United Launch Alliance, National Geographic, Aerojet and Phillips and Company.

The site is awesome with a nice little flash sky crane and descent stage which you can toggle with your mouse to land the rover dangling underneath. The site has excellent media resources on the mission and aims to bring updates and news on the rover during landing and afterwards. T he site also has a page with a list of ‘landing parties’ where you can partake in frivolities of the geeky kind while watching the landing live. If you have a party in the works you can add it to the list. If there’s one in the neighbourhood go check it out! It’s going to be a blast I’m sure.

Sadly Africa seems to have no party in the works which is really sad. But I suppose it’s all about timing; while it will be night time in the US on landing day many of us here will be off to work in the morning but you can bet I’ll be following the updates as they come on the blog and on twitter. I hope you’ll join us dear readers in celebrating the most awesome mission ever sent to the surface of Mars yet!

Go Curiosity! 6 days left! Here is her latest position


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Entry, Descent and Landing; the 7 minutes of terror

Just to recap the Curiosity rover is now tucked away in its aero shell connected to the cruise stage which is powered by solar panels and has recently begun charging the rover’s batteries at 100% for the coming rigours of entry, descent and landing or EDL. The scientific instruments are all off except for the rover’s radiation assessment detector or RAD which was left on for most of the cruise to Mars to measure radiation levels inside the aero shell capsule until recently.

Anatomy of the space craft: 1. Cruise stage 2. Back shell 3. Descent stage 4. Rover 5. Heat shield 6. Parachute canister (NASA/JPL)
Eight months and more than 500 million kilometres of travel later, NASA’s MSL Curiosity rover is about to begin a new chapter in its life; slowing down and making a soft landing on the surface of Mars in Gale crater on a plain called Aeolis planum besides the awesome Mount ‘Sharp’.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Open Exploration

Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander (Wikimedia Commons)

The famous astrophysicist, writer and TV presenter Carl Sagan talked in his equally famous work Cosmos about the way space missions should be managed. In the chapter on Mars he mused that a good way of going about exploring Mars would be to use rovers. Roving platforms would add an element of true exploration according to Sagan primarily because of their mobility. Imagine trying to explore a new continent by staying put at the beach. Perfect if you’re some sort of oceanographer or a meteorologist but absolutely useless if you want to explore or survey the land. You've got to move. I imagine he and his colleagues must have been frustrated with the Viking landers of the '70s which were stationary laboratories in sites that were painfully bleak.

Sagan also noted that the exploration element is important in that it enables the public to connect with mission, which is (at least in his days) usually dominated by the thinking that the public isn’t exactly a disciplined lecture room and therefore does not need direct participation. In the book and throughout his life he reminded that curiosity is a key human nature. It inspires us, empowers us, takes us to bold new heights and enriches our lives. ‘What’s that?’, ‘What kind of rock is that?’, ‘Let’s go see that weird sand dune’. These are the words that come out of great missions with great destinations AND great public engagement. Sagan’s philosophy was infective and many of his students run some of NASA’s missions today. Ever since the previous Mars rovers program Spirit and Opportunity decided to release the images on their website live as they came from the spacecraft for the public’s viewing pleasure it has become a norm if not a necessity for many missions. Other organisations like the European Space Agency (ESA) have been slow to follow but are catching up. It does pay to have good public engagement; more open, more funding!

Now you too can be part of the action and share the excitement, the passion and the beauty of adventure as the new rover screams its way towards Mars, to Gale crater. As soon as the rover lands you will be able to see the images live as they come down; you will see what the mission’s scientists see and you will wonder what the scientists wonder and with all of this happening you will be wiser. Now that is open exploration. If you would like to follow the mission closely visit the mission’s website at http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

In the next post I will focus on what the mission is up against as Mars looms ever closer.

Missions, Gremlins and the final (red) frontier

Artist depiction of the Curiosity rover on Mars
Space, the final frontier! These are the voyages of the spacecraft Curiosity. Though in this case the specific frontier is Gale crater on Mars.

Hello to anyone who is reading this and welcome to this humble new blog where we will journey to a place we couldn't have ever imagined going to, literally. The new mission seeks to answer questions on the 'habitability' of Mars by landing at Gale crater and performing some complicated forms of laboratory tests and examinations. That IS why it's called MSL, the Mars Science Laboratory. This is all very nice and well and will make for good topic in upcoming posts.

Mars is a hard place to go to. Since the beginning of the Space age the planet has claimed almost two-thirds of all the missions ever sent. The Soviets got most of the rotten luck notwithstanding the recent loss of Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission (seriously, you'd think after their successful Venus robotic missions in the '60s up to the '80s Mars should have been a piece of cake for them). The US after the successful Viking program in the '70s have since been effectively running a sort of monopoly though they have suffered their share of botched missions. Europe launched it's highly successful Mars Express orbiter in 2003 and has been working merrily since 2004. The Japanese gave it whirl too but I guess the Martian gremlin got to them.

So where does the new mission stand. Let me surmise for now with 3 words that describe it accurately; bigger, better and meaner. This gal is going to blow everyone's minds away when it lands early next month. Guaranteed. If this new video posted by the NASA/JPL doesn't convince you I don't what will!

So there you have it in a nut shell. Next post I will talk about the Curiosity mission's PR past roots, the evolution of landing on Mars. In the mean time here's an MSL FACT: the Curiosity spacecraft is also referred to as 2011-070A (hence the title in this blog's banner). Why? For identification purposes of course. Every craft launched into space is given an International Designation called COSPAR. It has 3 components, the year of launch (2011), the number of spacecraft launched for that year (70th) and the type (A represents launch vehicle and B deployed vehicle).

We are as of this post 12 days away. If you have watched the video (link above) I am sure you have joined me in getting the goosebumps!