Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sol 355: ONE YEAR ON MARS!

It has been almost one year since an object from Earth came streaking down the beige Martian sky to begin one of the most unique and iconic surface mission ever undertaken by a human-built probe on the surface of Mars. Already Curiosity has forced textbooks to be changed as the mission’s vast array of scientific instruments (few of which have never been used on another planet before) uncovers more and more information about this red planet’s environment, past present and also laying the foundations for an eventual human-led expedition.

To celebrate this occasion, NASA has put together some interesting multimedia on the mission website as well as a useful infograph that summarise the main discoveries made by the rover during its time here.
An infograph that summarises all of
Curiosity's discoveries to date (NASA/JPL) 

And just in time for the celebrations, we have here a nifty image sent down by the rover on the 1st of August this year, showing the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos in a single shot, a mission first. The image was originally spotted by blogger extraordinaire Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society.
This image was taken at night by Curiosity on sol 351.
You can clearly see the potato-like ruggedness of
big Phobos to the left and little Deimos to the right
(NASA/JPL/MSSS)
 I originally wanted to post this yesterday but I missed because my internet connection was down. Now I'm glad that I didn't post otherwise I would have missed this really brilliant video. It shows the flight spare of the SAM instrument on Earth being programmed to sing Happy Birthday to Curiosity! Well not exactly sing rather it is vibrating at certain frequencies that our brain interprets as a Happy Birthday jig. Its pretty awesome to watch and listen. The vibrations serve to nudge samples along the way in the many pipes and chambers inside the instrument.



This mission is just now ready to crank the gears up a notch. Curiosity is fast on its way to the ingress point south east of its position where it will start trudging Mount Sharp’s lower slopes and sampling ancient rock dating back more than 3 billion years ago. This was during a time of Mars’ geological history dubbed the Noachian era when the planet’s environment evidently could support liquid water in great amounts on the surface and the atmosphere was thick enough to prevent this water from boiling away. Whether life could be supported or was ever supported is another question entirely, one that may never be answered fully by Curiosity given the aim of the mission and the range of its instruments. Such questions can only be answered scientifically when we have a sample of Mars in our labs here on Earth. This would require a sample return mission and there a number of proposals on the drawing boards seeking funding and the next Martian rover in 2020 will be a part of that future effort in one way or another. Other countries and organisations like Europe’s European Space Agency, India’s Indian Space and Agency, Russia and China are all seeking to expand their Mars exploration programs one way or another.
A model of the coming Indian Mars Orbiter, the Mangalyaan or
'Mars-craft' in Hindi (photo by: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury)
Despite the undeniable scent of presence national competition and pride amongst these efforts, there is a universal scientific rallying to know this planet better which helps the unify humans and overcome national boundaries if only a little. Mars exploration is important to us and Curiosity is just the beginning of a global
wave of missions that are soon to be.

WHY ARE WE HERE?

This is what I want to reflect on today; what are we doing here? Why are we spending all this dough on these cool machines to send home fantastic vistas of faraway worlds? How do we convince the most demanding of auditors, i.e. the ordinary citizen, that space exploration and fundamental scientific research is as important as fighting poverty and world hunger? Immediate benefits are not apparent in some sciences such as astronomy and pure mathematics so why do we have to give damn?

In 1970, Sister Mary Jucunda, a nun based in Zambia, decided to write to a man named Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger who was at the time associate director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre. It was just within a year after America’s successful landing of men on the moon and the Apollo program that did it was well under way in sending more expeditions to the moon. Hence the nun’s letter was well justified both in the reason and time. In it she asked Dr. Stuhlinger how he could suggest spending billions of dollars on such projects at a time when so many children were starving on Earth. The thoughtful doctor did reply and today we can read his succinct explanation to the nun here. I believe that his reply still holds water in our post-cold war era. In any case his logic may be exactly what we need to overcome so many challenges today. I encourage readers to visit the given link to read the letter. Its a bit long but I don't think we should expect anything less for a question that touches on such important issues.

There is a reason why this era is called the era of Information. It is fundamental research and development that which is powering everything from our national economies to our food production (crops today are far more resilient thanks to advances in genetics) to the very way we learn, treat diseases and coordinate massive humanitarian interventions. It may be very hard to believe that our humble rover Curiosity is part of that wave of new knowledge but in actual fact she is! Here analytical instruments, the CheMin and SAM, are revolutionary because they have been ingeniously miniaturised to fit into the rover’s body and still produce high quality data rivalling their bigger cousins that reside in terrestrial laboratories. Curiosity is a technological feat whose advances will continue to echo well into the future of humanity, long after she completes her mission at Gale crater.

The age of discovery never started with the European conquest of the world nor has it ever ended. It all began when a certain being who walked on two legs and lived in Africa decided in his heart there is something over the hill that’s better than what is here and that we must walk in that direction to find it. We are still walking that walk up to today and we will continue that walk until we, as the poet T.S. Eliot put it, “...arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Meanwhile our rover continues on its way to Mount Sharp in earnest. What we will see at the end of this spurt I cannot say nor can anyone else. But what I’m pretty sure about is that I’ll be there to see it when it comes and I hope you too dear readers will be there too, waiting to see what lies over the distant hills like our ancient ancestors.
Panoramic view from Curiosity on sol 354. A lonely sand drift can be seen
in the foreground near centre. Currently the rover has completed over a mile
of roving. (NASA/JPL/Panorama by Abraham Samma)
Stay curious!