I was moved to tears earlier this morning as I watched mission control monitor and confirm the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. A feeling of absolute awe that I was there when this unbelievable feat of engineering came to fruition.
The project began 8 years ago with the rover leaving planet Earth in November 2011. After a 8 month journey the rover touched down today (6 August 2012) and has sent back 4 images to date. This is a distance of about 150 million kilometres. To put that into perspective, you would need to travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back everyday for the next 147 years to cover the same distance.
Once we arrived there, Curiosity went through the so-called 7 minutes of terror. This was the time it took Curiosity from the moment it entered the Martian atmosphere until it touched down. The entire landing sequence was automated and is the most innovative and daring landing ever attempted.
The previous Mars rovers were surrounded by balloons and bounced onto the surface. At 2400kg, Curiosity is much too heavy for this kind of landing and so the engineers had to come up with something else. They also had the challenge of landing on a precise point, the Gale Crater, to gather the samples they need. (The Gale Crater is a 6km high mountain)
The capsule entered the Martian atmosphere travelling at about 21 000km/h! The air slowed the craft (which looks like a pyramid) to about 1500km/h when the parachute deployed. (A chute 15.5m in diameter connected to the craft by 80 tethers) This further slowed the craft to about 305km/h, much too fast for a safe landing. Now that was the “easy” bit!
The craft now needs to slow to very close to 0km/h to ensure a safe landing. The parachute alone could never achieve this. So it was then jettisoned and a jet propulsion craft emerged with Curiosity tucked safely in its belly. Now you would think you could now simply touch down and deploy Curiosity. Not so fast, the retro-rockets used to slow the jet down to a hover cannot get closer than about 10m from the surface as closer than that would cause a dust storm that could damage the sensitive instruments on board. So instead a sky crane was deployed which lowered the rover to the surface while the jet hovered above! As soon as the rover touched down, the jet performed a fly away manoeuvre and crashed about 150m from the landing site.
And so 150 million kilometres away from Earth a car sized rover will soon be performing experiments that will show not only if life ever evolved on Mars but also reveal if life on Mars is possible. Where this information leads us is not clear currently but it will undoubtedly change our lives in the long run. (Nobody could have predicted the effect that our understanding of quantum mechanics would hold, but we now know that none of our modern technology would be possible without this knowledge.)
I await these new discoveries with anticipation. Surely this is what the explorers of yore must have felt like. Only this time around everyone on planet Earth can share and watch the adventure as it unfolds!
Just a last point to ponder. The Curiosity mission will cost an estimated $2.5 billion. The war in Iraq has cost about $4 trillion so far!! That amounts to 1600 missions!! Instead we spent that money blowing each to bits. Sometimes I shout with joy at the adventurous spirit of the human nature and other times I cry with despair. Let's hope that the Curiosity will provide plenty more of those shouts of joy in the next 2 years.
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