The mass interest in the current Olympics, and yesterday’s landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars really brought home to me that we are an empathetic species. We celebrate the achievements of others and feel the jubilation they do when things go right.
And with Curiosity’s successful landing I think we also celebrate the achievement because we see that it belongs to all of us. It is an achievement for all humanity.
The achievement is huge. The technically difficult landing seemed to go without a hitch. Scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were receiving images within minutes. Everyone was aware that attempts at Mars landing have a history of failure.
The descent by parachute was photographed by a high-resolution camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. – see below.
That seems incredibly lucky but clearly a lot of skill and technology went into this achievement as well. As Phil Plait wrote on Bad Astronomy:
“The simple and sheer amazingness of this picture cannot be overstated. Here we have a picture taken by a camera on board a space probe that’s been orbiting Mars for six years, reset and re-aimed by programmers hundreds of millions of kilometers away using math and science pioneered centuries ago, so that it could catch the fleeting view of another machine we humans flung across space, traveling hundreds of million of kilometers to another world at mind-bending speeds, only to gently – and perfectly – touch down on the surface mere minutes later.”
According to a media briefing earlier today the full version of this image also shows the abandoned heat shield which landed some distance from the Curiosity’s landing site.
Now we have to be patient while Curiosity is checked out by engineers and slowly brought into full functioning. It will be weeks before the vehicle starts driving around, sampling soil and rocks, and analysing samples.
Even the downloading of images already captured will take time. So far we are only seeing relatively low resolution images. Large teams of engineers and scientists will be working strange hours (the slightly different length of the Martian day (sol) and the Earth day causes “jet lag” for these people) receiving data, planning experiments, writing code and uplifting code and instructions.
Andrew Kessler gives an idea of the activity and life style of the teams involved in managing the last Mars lander – Phoenix – in his book Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission. For my review of this book see Working on Mars.