Curiosity: it’s only just begun

August 6, 2012 • 4:14 am

I know that some of you, as did I, stayed up last night to watch the Mars rover “Curiosity” execute a successful touchdown on the red planet.  It was a highly emotional moment, not just for the engineers, technicians, and other NASA personnel who went wild in the control room when the words “touchdown confirmed” were announced, but also the rest of us. It was a triumph for science and the human spirit, as the readers of my live Curiosity “blog” can attest.  And it was all so improbable.  As Matthew Cobb responded when I asked him if he got up early enough to watch it (he’s in Manchester, England):

No I’m ashamed to say I was asleep. I don’t think I could have stood the tension. I was so sure it was going to fail, given a) Mars’ history and b) the crazy way they decided to land the damn thing. Absolutely astonishing. More amazing and exciting than the whole of the Olympics put together.

There’s a short—too short—account of the landing by Kenneth Chang in today’s New York Times; it includes this:

The landing, involving a seemingly impossible sequence of complex maneuvers, proceeded like clockwork: the capsule containing Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere, the parachute deployed, the rocket engines fired, the rover was lowered and, finally, the Curiosity was on the ground.

Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings.

NASA will spend the first month checking out Curiosity. The first drive could occur early next month. The rover would not scoop its first sample of Martian soil until mid-September at the earliest, and the first drilling into rock would occur in October or November.

Because Curiosity is powered by electricity generated from the heat of a chunk of plutonium, it could continue operating for years, perhaps decades, in exploring the 96-mile-wide crater where it has landed.

Meanwhile, Irish comedian and science lover Dara O’Briain said this on Twitter:

And this is the photo, taken by C. S. Muncy:


It’s a great morning to be a human.

Oh, and if you’re late to work today (I’m a bit groggy myself), you can haz this from xkcd:

p.s. If you like science that much, read the damn sloth post!

37 thoughts on “Curiosity: it’s only just begun

      1. They timed it specially for us in New Zealand at 5.31pm. I was in the Carter Observatory in Wellington with 100 others, and the floor at the front was full of kids.

        (Odd illusion: They projected it on a mushroom-coloured wall {which I could compare with the white wall-sockets mounted on it}, but the whites in the image appeared perfectly white.)

    1. LOL!

      I too did read the sloth post, but this is more up my alley. I got up too to watch the landing (and I’m going to work a little later). I didn’t know they were watching it in Times Square but that is pretty cool.

  1. Sigh. I’m just too old for that. I gave up at 1:30 am in my time zone. Now to find a replay of the video…glad to hear it went well…

  2. I got a call from a kind friend in the States to wake me up as it was early morning here in Ireland. It was so worth it!

    1. Yes I am one that disagrees. The Labelled Release (LR) experiments on the Viking landers back in 1975 produced a strong case for microbial life on Mars.

      Klaus Bieman (the distinguished Mass Spectrometrist and leader of the chemistry group)and the chemistry establishment (I write this as both a chemist and a mass spectrometrist) vituperatively attacked the results of Gilbert Levin’s Labelled Release experiments. Gilbert Levin was an environmental engineer and inventor who had obtained a Ph.D. from the research conducted to develop the LR device did not have Bieman’s academic clout, so the full implications of LR results were suppressed by the chemists propaganda campaign to discredit them. None of the chemcial causes for the CO2 release that they proposed (typically from the presence of superoxides in the Martian soils) could replicate the LR results. Levin’s positive results for the extremely low level of microbes in Antarctic ice cores which were consistent with plating out results, showed the sensitivity of the device. It’s negative results for Lunar rock samples showed its resistance to false positives.

      I doubt Bieman’s mass spectrometry experiment would have been capable of detecting organic molecules in Antarctic ice cores at the extremely low levels there. Anyway there was evidence of possible malfunctions in the chemistry groups experiments on Mars. The LR results provide a strong case for the existence of microbial life on Mars possibly detected in a dormant spore form. It is a tragedy that Levin’s proposed chiral LR experiment (a much more specific detector for living microbes) has not been included in recent US Mars expeditions to put this to the test.

      Recent mathematical analysis of the LR results supports its interpretation as a strong case for the presence of microbial lif on Mars:

      http://news.discovery.com/space/mars-life-viking-landers-discovery-120412.html

  3. With all these posts about Curiosity there don’t seem to have been any about cats recently.

    So, Curiosity killed the cat posts.

    I’ll get me coat.

  4. I didn’t see the midnight show, but I have to thank you for posting the photo of the young people in Times Square cheering a science adventure. It gives me hope for the future.

    1. I loved that, too! Couldn’t help but think, though, “How come the police won’t allow peaceful protestors alone like they left these folks alone?”

  5. to the anti-science hypocrites: Science works. Now go fail again with your prayers.

    and why doubt life on Mars, once or now? Just more delusions that somehow we’re “special”.

  6. I stayed up to watch the landing – the tension was palpable and then jubilation! It was so worth the bleary state of my eyes this morning. I can’t wait to see the research and color photos when they begin coming in! Dare mighty things indeed.

  7. I’m glad you label this as a “human” accomplishment, rather than an “American” one. It’s time we all started to think that way.

  8. Thanks for this fabulous post, Jerry, and for the link to the NY Times article.

    Now this has got to be the understatement of the millennia…**“These things are really hard to do,” Mr. McCuistion said.**

    And yet, it boggles my mind that getting to Mars is not as hard as the god-deluded to come to terms with and accept the fact that *there is no god*!

  9. Kink was asleep in the chair but I watched NASA TV on the big screen and had the landing simulation going on my Mac.

    To me the scariest part of the descent was the rocket “helicopter.” The software that controls the rockets must be astounding.

    It will be interesting to see where the descent module landed and I’m sure the orbiting cameras will give us that answer in due time.

    Kink woke up briefly during all the cheering but when I carried him to bed he was a limp sack of sand.

  10. Frankly I think the sloth post a lot more interesting than the Curiosity thing. Until it finds traces of life of course.
    And I’m a teacher physics. The higgs-boson – that was exciting.

  11. In my humble opinion, I found the complexity of two maneuvers that cannot be “live” tested on Earth, that must simply be programmed and run through simulations, to be the most impressive part of the seven minutes of terror: The giant parachute and its deployment, and the skycrane thrusters. Even some small anomaly in the upper Mars atmosphere could have distorted the trajectory during the heat shield portion of the descent, creating the need for multiple corrections to the program, in real time. This type of what-if is no doubt the reason you assemble a very large team of the best of the very best Sapiens to execute a mission like this.

    It’s sort of analogous to designing a passenger aircraft, building it, then loading it with passengers in every seat, and a huge slug of fuel, for its initial, first-ever flight. It just seems impossible that untried systems work on the first pull of the lever.

  12. Got up early (well 6.00am BST is early for me) and watched it all while sitting in front of my PC in my dressing gown with a cup of tea. I had to laugh when I saw the @MarsCuriosity tweet “…So long & thanks for all the navigation…”

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