Editorial: Curiosity Killed the Planet, Why Now is Not the Time to Explore Mars

The face of Curiosity

As I sit here wearing my NASA t-shirt, I feel like I am back in my old college speech class when the professor asked us to give a persuasive speech about something we didn’t believe in. You have to understand that I am a huge fan of NASA. I am fascinated by the idea of space exploration. Ever since I was a tiny boy, I can always remember looking up at the Milky Way and just being overcome by the feeling that I was adrift in space. I totally understand why some believe the stars can tell the future. The Universe is so vast, so amazing, it’s easy to look up and think, “The answers must be out there somewhere.” Unfortunately for me lately, I have reached a new stage in my life that when I look at the world around me, I suddenly come to the conclusion that we seriously need some answers down here before we go searching for answers up there. Of course, this stage in my life just happens to coincide with one of NASA’s crowning achievements, which is putting the Mars Curiosity Rover on the ground. Believe me when I say that I am extremely proud of the work the NASA team did to put Curiosity on the surface of Mars, but I have to say that now is not the time.

Prestige and Politics

NASA is fighting for its life right now. The political climate in the U.S. is the worst I have seen in my 40 years of living. There are many who reminisce about a time when the U.S. could really flex its muscle and do something that no other country could do. After World War II, the U.S. was filled with euphoria. Full of confidence and pride, the U.S. was more than willing to join in the international pissing match by joining the arms race. No way were we going to be outdone by the likes of the Soviet Union. Putting a man on the moon made us the best of the best. Now, fast forward to today. The baby boomers have inherited the country. They are the spoiled brat children of the so called “greatest generation”, having little if any clue what it was like to strap on a pair of work boots and really earn anything. They were the hippies, free lovers, draft dodgers, the “me” generation. They are something to be mocked by most of the world. Even our European neighbors have seemingly forgotten who it was that bailed them out of the grip of tyranny. I guess the point I am making here is that as incredible as it is to land this rover on Mars, the prestige factor just isn’t there like it was for the NASA of the 60’s and 70’s. If you don’t believe me, test yourself. Think back to where you were when the U.S. launched the first space shuttle into space. Think about the fascination and the hoopla surrounding that event. Try to match the events of this recent trip to mars with the excitement of that day. If it’s about prestige then consider this mission a fail.

Life on Mars?

NASA’s Mar’s Exploration Program Page details some of the history and the driving forces that lead NASA to explore Mars to begin with. Here is an excerpt from their website which I believe tells it all:

Among our discoveries about Mars, one stands out above all others: the possible presence of liquid water on Mars, either in its ancient past or preserved in the subsurface today. Water is key because almost everywhere we find water on Earth, we find life. If Mars once had liquid water, or still does today, it’s compelling to ask whether any microscopic life forms could have developed on its surface. Is there any evidence of life in the planet’s past? If so, could any of these tiny living creatures still exist today? Imagine how exciting it would be to answer, “Yes!!”

That my friends is truly the driving force is it not? The quest for life elsewhere is like a maddening life’s purpose for some. It confounds me sometimes when I try to reason out why we are so driven to find life somewhere else in the Universe. Are we really that lonely down here? I am no fool. I realize there are hundreds of reasons to want to find life on Mars, but let me ask this question; What has humanity done for life on this planet to deserve the distinction of finding life on another? Could it be because we are such good stewards of the world we live in? Does life not thrive everywhere we set our feet? I say this facetiously. In my opinion, we humans excel in selfish ambition, mindlessness, and destruction. Just think for a moment and imagine if we absolutely find evidence of life on Mars. Do you think that it will draw humankind closer together and improve life here on earth? Frankly, I don’t feel humanity is ready to find life elsewhere. As humanity stands today, and if we find life on Mars, I believe all of the traits which I previously stated we excel in will come to the forefront. The religious zealots will deny it. The atheists will revel that God is a man-made concoction. Braggarts will brag and the ambitious will start their money making engines. I don’t even want to imagine the political rhetoric. In the shadow of all this will be the poor who cannot get a hand up, the diseased who are waiting on miracles to save their lives, endangered species of whom humanity is both their biggest threat and only hope, and a world that groans for peace.

Plate Tectonics on Mars!

Mars is more similar to Earth than you might think! For one, Mars also has tectonic motion, says a UCLA scientist. Yes, there are tectonic plates on Mars that move, create huge gorges and also develop prominent fault lines, just like they do on Earth. But then, they are not as similar as a naïve generalization might suggest.

Prof. An Yin, professor of Earth and space sciences explains why:

Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth.

Deeper and Longer than anything else!

At the center of his research, lies the huge canyon between two regions, called the Valles Marineris (Latin for “Valley of Mariner”, after the Mariner Mars craft). With vertical cliffs, jagged rocks and a length of nearly 2500 km – about 9 times that of the Grand Canyon here on Earth – this is clearly a geologic goldmine! How did it form?

The central part of the Valles Marineris (Courtesy: Google)

Yin argues that the forces at play are the familiar forces which generate steep cliffs here on Earth, namely the tectonic forces. The Valles Marineris, he argues, is actually a fault line and the forces have pushed up and submerged rocks, just like in Death Valley, California, which was also formed by tectonic action. And just for records of the superlatives, this is the deepest and longest canyon known in the Solar System.

Plates

The plates on Mars number just two, as compared to seven on Earth. They also move much slower than their terrestrial cousins. Mars being about half the size of Earth explains this slow motion – the initial ball of molten material was much more stable and there was less thermal energy to drive the whole process, which would’ve fragmented the crust even further. However, Yin thinks that the planet is on its way to becoming more fractured.

What About Mars-quakes?

Slow movement between plates and just one stable fault line means that Mars-quakes are way less frequent than earthquakes. The rate of movement hasn’t been ascertained – it’s just that it’s slow! Yin, who uses data obtained from the satellite images taken by the THermal Emission Imagine System (THEMIS) aboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft and also from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), thinks more data collected in the next year or so will help in answering these questions.

Prof. Yin’s paper is set to appear in the journal Lithosphere soon.

Enjoy The First Images From Mars Sent by the Curiosity Rover

You’ve just seen a few, but you have not seen them all! Curiosity is running at its peak sending back images by the dozens!

Starting from an egoistic shot of its own shadow, Curiosity has gotten down to business and is busy clicking the rugged Martian landscape. Its NAVCAM (NAVigation CAMera) mast has now been raised and it is taking photos with the camera placed there as well.

Here is a small gallery of the images that Curiosity has shot with detailed explanations.

Own photo!

Own image

The two photos shows Curiosity’s shadow on the surface of Mars, the left one before the dust has been removed and the right one after dust removal. The mountain in the background is Mount Sharp, the ultimate destination of the Mars Rover.

Note that this isn’t the high resolution image. That’s coming up in a bit.

Landscape portrait in context

landscape in context

This is an interesting image. The colour film, made slightly transparent to put it into the perspective of the landscape, is the actual photo taken by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager(MAHLI). During descent, this got covered by a thin film of dust and thus this isn’t the best available photo.

The background has been simulated with the help of High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE)’s images sent earlier. It also incorporates the images sent in by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and those obtained from the Mars Express.

Curiosity landing site

landing site

This image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It simply shows the different parts of the original Curiosity payload, scattered in different parts across the Martian surface.

These are hopefully the first in a long list of images that NASA will obtain. Curiosity also promises to send in colour panorama photos in a day or two!

More than mere images, we hope that the geological profile of the rocks on Mars will be a revelation.

More photos here: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/images/?s=1

Curiosity Touches Down on Mars As Humankind’s Hand Extends Further Into The Unknown

This is one invasion that everyone is delighted about! Man invaded Mars again, with the giant Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, the new Mars Rover, landing on Mars today. The whole payload managed to touchdown on the Red Planet, maneuvering itself with utmost perfection. Remember, all of this happened when Earth was blind to whatever was happening on Mars!

Curiosity is expected to drill into the surface, revealing geological layer after geological layer!

Touchdown and cheers

Things worked out like clockwork. The projected times all matched the real times to a few seconds! If you were watching the live stream from the NASA/JPL control room, you’d know the atmosphere in the room as each stage of the rover was accomplished.

There was a loud cheer when the parachute was deployed, a louder one when the back heat shield separated from the main body and the loudest was reserved for when the rover touched down and the magic words ‘Touchdown confirmed’ were spoken out. The almost childish celebrations that ensued involved people hugging each other, clapping frantically and many breaking down in tears. The scene was one of the most emotional ones you’ll ever see – a perfect antidote to the misrepresentation of science and scientists as emotionless entities.

Images and cheers

The next loud cheer occurred when the Odyssey spacecraft took a grainy 64×64 pixel image, just 4 KB in size, showing one of the wheels of Curiosity on the Martian surface. Odyssey soon sent a higher resolution picture, 256×256 pixel wide. The next image was that of the shadow of Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Never have such tiny images generated so much cheer – and tears!

First image. Look at the grainy image of the wheel on the right bottom
An improvement on the earlier image

 

Shadow into the unknown! The shadow of Curiosity

Here is a video of the control room, showing that dramatic scenes.

With the punches that Curiosity packs, we are in for a great time on the surface of Mars. Stay tuned, we’ll keep you updated.

All You Need To Know About The Mars Rover Landing

The new Mars Rover, Curiosity, is poised to land on the Red Planet at 0524 GMT on 6th August. There have been no reported delays or corrections for tomorrow. The final path corrections were made today, and now Curiosity is out there on its own. From the time the Rover, called Mars Science Laboratory or MSL, enters the atmosphere to the time it touches down, the whole world will hold its breath. This is to so-called “seven minutes of terror”.

Curiosity!

In this article, I’ll give you everything you need to know about the landing – the time, the place and more. Buckle up!

Landing: The Time!

If everything goes smoothly, Curiosity should touch down at 0731 CET (Central European Time) or 0531 GMT. I will take you through these seven minutes before they happen in this article. The times (all in GMT) given below are all expected times as given by ESA and NASA:

Time: T–6 min, 41 sec; 05:24:34 AM

At an altitude of 125 km, the Curiosity payload sheds two 75-kg tungsten weights. This reduces the weight, but it still can’t fly. Perhaps Allen Chen, JPL’s operations for entry, was paraphrasing Douglas Adams when he said “We’re flying like a brick”. The spacecraft’s internal gyroscopes have to all coordinate to keep the spacecraft aimed at the Gale Crater. The target is barely 20 km across.

Time: T–5 min, 26 sec;

The Earthly package is in free-fall. The atmospheric drag increases the surface temperature to about 21000C. Carbon tiles, specially made to handle such high temperatures, protect the precious load inside. Curiosity is nestled safely inside this package.

Time: T–2 min, 28 sec; 05:28:46 AM

The parachute deploys! It’s nearly 16 meters in diameter! The hearts of all the NASA and ESA engineers are in their mouths. The parachutes are one of the parts most likely to fail, even though that failure possibility is quoted at 1%. This will be a real test for the parachutes, since they have only cushioned drops for much lighter payloads. The altitude from ground is 11km and the payload is still travelling faster than sound at an estimated 425 m/s.

Time: T–2 min, 4 sec; 05:29:07 AM

The heat shield separates! The payload starts sensing the ground approaching. The current altitude is just 8 km and the payload is now moving at 125 – 130 m/s, still too fast to make a proper landing. Crucially, three radar antennas switch on and this is how it knows how far the ground is. The data is useful for the craft to adjust its actions. For the first time, the craft has eyes and its guidance system can kick in.

Time: T– 53 sec; 05:30:40 AM

The back-shell separates. Finally, the world gets a glimpse of the new Rover! The back-shell flies off with the parachute! Curiosity drops down towards the surface, cushioned by the thrust of eight retrorockets. The altitude is less than 2 km from the surface and the craft is moving at a speed of 80 m/s.

Time: T–20 sec; 05:31:17 AM

The sky crane is deployed! This is a complete transformation from previous landings by NASA. So why this sudden transformation? Simple – Curiosity is just too heavy. This calls for a new arrangement – the wheel suspension system can be used as a landing gear. The main craft, Curiosity, then drops down as a thread unspools from the sky crane. The craft gently drops down at a nice pace of 0.75 m/s.

Time: T–0 sec; 05:31:37 AM

Touchdown!

Landing: The Place

The site of the touchdown is Gale Crater. The crater is 154 km wide, but the target area is just 20 km. The High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on the Mars Express spacecraft has just sent back a very interesting picture of the landing area. The image is a false colour image as shown below:

The Gale Crater

The image suggests the presence of water-based minerals, which might form the basis of life. The lower elevated areas are shown in purple and this forms the target landing area. But don’t miss out on the elevation right in the middle – it’s called Mount Sharp and rises to 5.5 km above the crater floor. Scientists want the rover to land closest to this mountain, as the geologic features there are “very interesting”. The rover will land in the depression, scour around for interesting geologic artifacts and then trudge towards the elevation.

The Eyes and Ears of Curiosity

Meanwhile, the Mars Express will be eyes and ears of the Mars Science Laboratory. The Mars Express Lander Communication (MELACOM) will be switched on at 0205 GMT on 6th August, long before the touchdown.

M-Ex starts recording

Radio signals transmitted by the Mars Rover will be recorded by the Mars Express starting from 05:09 to 05:37 GMT. (For CET times, just add two hours.) This is when the MELACOM receiver switches off and the Mars Express starts off from the dark area of Mars to point at Earth.

M-Ex starts transmitting

The Mars Express starts transmitting recorded signals back to Earth at 06:10 AM (GMT). The data will be transmitted for over 40 minutes with the transmitter shutting down at about 06:42 AM. The only thing left to do for ESA is to transfer the data to NASA.

The Final Words

We’ll be there with you when the massive Mars Rover, weighing in at 900 kg, touches down on the surface. The leaps made have not only been in terms of the technology packed in the machine, but also in the new ways devised to land a very heavy craft precisely on the surface of another planet. The unexpected hurdle came in the form of the black out for the “seven minutes of terror”, during which Curiosity will land, but NASA will be completely blind to it.

So what can go wrong? Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, has a very simple answer – “All sorts of things can go wrong”.

What about all the simulations of worst-case scenarios, rigorous testing of each part and lessons learnt from previous missions? Shouldn’t they be enough? Steven lee, mission’s control systems manager, working in JPL has the perfect closing line:

Probably the overall biggest risk is our lack of imagination.

Catch The Live Stream For The Mars Rover Landing On 5th August Here!

The Olympics are all set to lose the gaze of the world as the Mars Rover lands on Mars on the 5th of August, 2012. As we have already said, the Mars Rover’s landing might not be directly viewable by NASA, but we do hope that the landing goes well.

To Mars,
From Earth,
With Love.
(Image courtesy: NASA/JPL)

Now, the question of where you can see the Mars Rover, Curiosity, in action comes in. Catch the historic landing right here!

Broadcasts

There will be two main broadcasts streamed online. They will be at these times:

  1. 11:30 PM on 5th August to 2:00 AM on 6th August EST
  2. 3:30 AM to 4:00 AM on 6th August, after Curiosity has landed. This will feature the first images.

Live Streaming Channels

This will have commentary and interviews alongwith the feed.

This channel will have the mission feed, clean and uninterrupted. It will also have the mission audio. Basically you’ll be experiencing what the Curiosity engineers monitoring Curiosity just after landing are experiencing. If that is not cool, I don’t know what is!

Other thank this, you can definitely visit these pages:

www.nasa.gov.in/mars 

www.nasa.gov.in/msl

Also, you can follow the event on Twitter. The Twitter handle is @marscuriosity

Know about the top 10 features of the Mars Rover Curiosity: http://techie-buzz.com/science/ten-coolest-things-curiosity.html

Curiosity lands in Gale Crater, one of the deepest craters on Mars. The search for water and possibly life begins here! It begins on Sunday.

Join us then!

NASA May Be Blind When The Mars Rover Curiosity Lands On Mars

NASA’s craft might be in for a crash landing, but NASA won’t know about it till quite later! Yes, the landing of the new Mars Rover, Curiosity, on the Gale crater might be blind. NASA will lose real-time system coverage owing to a maneuvering glitch last month, which has put the craft onto a different orbit.

The face of Curiosity

Those seven minutes

The entry into Mars’ atmosphere, descent onto the surface and the final landing procedure will all take place in seven minutes. The duration that NASA has dubbed ‘seven minutes of terror’.

What about the other eyes on Mars? Well, the two spacecraft orbiting Mars, as part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter or MRO, won’t be able to send in real time data. One will just be able to record the descent but not transmit in real time, and the other won’t be able to align itself till the last minute.

The descent is due on the 6th of August at 0131 EST or 0531 GMT. The place of descent will be a deep crater called the Gale Crater.

The Gale Crater is one of the lowest spots on Mars. If there is water underneath the surface, this is where the water will be closest to the surface.

Mission Aim

One of the most important aims of this mission is the search for water. There have been tell-tale signs of the existence of water, even if it was in prehistoric times. One of the best clues is the existence of clay and gypsum.

Now, the big question: Is there or was there life? Curiosity hopes to find out. Remember, water first, life later. And the search in the mission will also be conducted in the same way.

Why is NASA so worried about the landing?

NASA has reasons to be concerned about the landing. Curiosity tips the scales for spacecraft sent to foreign worlds at a massive one ton. It cannot be descended using landing bags which can cushion the fall. The plan is to deploy a parachute and also fire rockets in the opposite direction. This ‘descent platform’ will ensure smooth landing.

Best of luck NASA!

Curious about Curiosity? Keep following this blog.

Failed Russian Mars Spacecraft Phobos-Grunt Crashes Into The Pacific Ocean

The Phobos-Grunt Mars Moon spacecraft has hit water! According to Russian defense ministry reports, the re-entering satellite fragmented and fell into the Pacific Ocean about 1,250 km west of Wellington Island, an island to the west of the Patagonian Ice Field, Chile. The crash took place at 18:45 CET, say several sources.

More details from our previous report: http://techie-buzz.com/science/phobos-grunt-crash.html

The craft…

There was initial panic and both Roskosmos and NASA played crucial roles in assuring the public that the fears were unfounded. The fears of a toxic nuclear fuel spill were allayed by statements by NASA on their website.

Initial reports indicate that no spill has taken place. There have also been no reports of any debris falling on habited areas.

… And the dreams surrounding it.

The spacecraft was supposed to land on Mars’ moon, Phobos, in order to study the satellite. It was supposed to collect soil samples and return to Earth. Unfortunately for the $170 billion craft, it failed right during the launch and was stuck in orbit for a long time. It had even gone off the radar. After several unsuccessful attempts at locating and communicating with the craft, it was finally found. Several attempts were made by both Russian and American scientists to bring the craft safely back to Earth or to steer it to its original mission. All efforts failed. Left with no options and a potentially dangerous craft hanging mid-air, Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, along with NASA, decided to send the craft to a watery grave.

Russian Mars Moon Probe Phobos-Grunt To Crash Into Atlantic Ocean Tomorrow Amid Widespread Concerns

It’s just at the stage of concern at the moment, but the time when it’ll suddenly change to panic is not far away. The doomed Russian Mars spacecraft Phobos-Grunt, is scheduled to plunge into the water tomorrow. The problem is that no one knows where it’ll hit.

Estimated location: South of Buenos Aires, in the Atlantic Ocean near Falkland Islands.

Estimated time of impact: 8:22 PM GMT

The CRASH: http://techie-buzz.com/science/phobos-grunt-crash-pacific.html

What could have been! Artist's impression of the craft on Phobos, a moon of Mars. (Courtesy: www.universetoday.com)

The craft had been launched on November 9th, but got stuck in orbit soon afterwards. There were several attempts made to get it working, but nothing came of those. Now, the Russian space agency wants to bring it down permanently.

Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, added to this atmosphere of confusion with a wrong prediction. They had initially said that it would fall somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but later retracted that statement and said that it would hit somewhere in the Atlantic. Its official statement, as told to Interfax:

Phobos-Grunt will enter the atmosphere over Argentina and have its fragments splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The latest estimate by Roscosmos showed that the craft will descend somewhere south of Buenos Aires, but that puts the Falkland Islands in some danger of being hit. The time of the crash was supposedly Sunday afternoon, but Roscosmos modified that to late evening, with the new time being 1622 GMT.

Serious Concerns

The concerns arise from two main sources.

Large Size

Firstly, the craft is quite big. It is dwarfed only by the Mir Space Station when it comes to objects that have been pulled down from orbit and plunged into the ocean. The craft is big enough to allow about 20-30 pieces of debris, each weighing more than 200 kg, to survive the fall and hit earth.

Nuclear spill

Secondly, the big fear is that of a toxic nuclear spill. The craft was packed with enough nuclear fuel to take it to Mars. Obviously, in just 2 months only a fraction has been burnt up. NASA has, however, played down the fears saying that the fuels batteries are made of aluminum instead of titanium. Aluminum will rupture and allow the fuel to be burnt during freefall. NASA reported on its official website:

According to Mr. Johnson, aluminum has a lower melting point than titanium and that significantly reduces the chances of the propellant reaching the surface of the Earth.

(Mr. Johnson refers to Nicholas Johnson, one of NASA’s chief scientists).

Roscosmos has promised to keep all concerned nations and the United Nations posted on developments about the craft.

An embarrassing setback

The Phobos-Grunt mission represents a serious setback for the Russian space agency, which is well past its peak. The mission was quite ambitious, and success would’ve been glorious, especially in the backdrop of the retirement of the NASA space shuttle fleet. However, the Russians seem quite ill-equipped to seize this golden moment provided by History.

The craft might end tomorrow, but the embarrassment will live on for quite some time.

Enjoy Mars As Seen Through 20,000 High-Resolution Images And Even In 3D!

You may have known Mars, but you’ve never seen it like this! It’s really a scientific tool, but the non-Mars specialists are free to have some fun with it! The Hi-resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). It is an awesomely cool science project involving imaging every square inch of Mars, with a resolution of 25 cm per pixel! The camera is built by the University of Arizona and mounted aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Over the last five and half years, it has returned over 20,620 images till date.  We give you the link below.

http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu/katalogos.php
Dunes on Mars! No that's not shimmering water.

Addictive Mars!

Make sure you have time when you start browsing through these! It’s extremely addictive and I found myself trying to look at the dunes, then the craters, then the frosted plains, then the translucent ice on domes, then… The list is virtually endless. Go to any of the images and you’ll get numerous download options. Don’t try JP2 formats – it’s for people who want to work with the images and thus they are extremely big (a photo can measure 300 MB in size!). Try the jpeg format, which provides a compressed form of the image. RGB worked best for me. There is a ‘Science Theme’, which links it under a particular tab. Click that and you’ll be provided information on that particular theme, which you’re welcome to either relish or gobble up. You might even notice the ‘stereo pair’ reference, and I’ll explain what they are in a moment.

Downloads and a whole new dimension!

You can download a chunk of the most high resolution images by clicking ‘Updates’ right at the top of the screen. On the right, you should see download options in various resolutions. A click is all you need to take possession of masterpieces!

If you unintentionally click on the ‘Anaglyphs’ tag at the top of the screen, you’ve just discovered something awesome! You’ll see two images, which form ‘stereo pairs’. Combined and with the help of a 3D glass, you can see the images in 3D!! Yes, you read it right – the Martian topography in 3D in the comfort of your own room!

An example of dunes on Mars, which will appear in 3D!

Just one word of advice while using this database: make sure you have fun! Afterall, it’s Mars!