This IS Rocket Science 8/6/12

We just put an SUV on another planet.  The Curiosity rover, 9.8 feet long and weighing 1982 pounds, successfully landed on Mars Sunday evening, August 5, 2012.  Utilizing a radical new system called a sky-crane, the spacecraft came screaming into the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour, deployed a parachute, dropped it’s heat shield, fired retro-rockets to bring the craft to a hover 25 feet above the ground, and lowered the lander to a soft touchdown on cables.  The lander released it’s tethers, and the rocket pack flew off to a safe distance from the rover.  All on auto-pilot.  With a radio signal delay of 14 minutes across the solar system between Earth and Mars, there is no way to control the craft in real time.  This is another first for NASA/JPL/USA.

The last time we landed rovers on Mars, we used air bags.  That worked perfectly for Opportunity (still working after 8 years on Mars) and Spirit, much smaller rovers.  For a laboratory the size of Curiosity, however, bouncing it across the surface of the Red Planet wasn’t an option.  The sky crane was devised to get the large mobile science station safely to the ground, and it worked perfectly.

I was watching the live internet feed on NASA TV from JPL in Pasadena, and noticed something interesting.  (well, interesting to me, anyway)  The engineering team was a mixture of young and old.  The young members looked happy, confident, and excited.  The older team members were very much more reserved, with apprehensive looks on their faces.  One team leader was wearing a path in the carpet with his pacing back and forth.  It was clear the older team members were anxious about the results, probably because many of them remember first hand the number of probes that have been lost at Mars.  The untested (on another planet, anyway) sky-crane system held their hopes literally at the end of a rope, and any of a thousand different things could have gone wrong and left us with a pile of debris decorated with Old Glory.

When the signals came in, and the first two pictures arrived, the relief was palpable on the faces of the older team members.  It looked like a couple of them were having small heart attacks right after the data indicating a successful landing arrived at JPL.  The cheering, hugging, back slapping, and hand shakes were highlighted by the relieved looks on everyone’s faces.  The “youngsters” may have been confident of the outcome, since many of them have only known success in space missions.  Failed Mars missions of the past, and the loss of two Space Shuttles, are almost ancient history.  For the old salts, those are life-experience memories, and the threat of catastrophic failure looms not far back in the reaches of their minds.  It had to have been something they contemplated, and strove to prevent.  They succeeded.

Now begins engineering tests to confirm the lander is functioning properly.  The team will figure out exactly where Curiosity has landed, it’s orientation, and how all it’s parts are functioning in the cold, thin Martian atmosphere.  Soon hi-resolution pictures will start arriving, and we’ll see what the bottom of a 97 mile wide crater looks like.

They say this mission cost me (and you) $7.  I can’t think of a better way to have my tax dollars spent!  Heck, I’d pay double that, if I had to!

Pictures and science start soon.  I can’t wait.  I love rocket science!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s