In less than 24 hours we’ll know how it all turned out. After waiting up all night, watching NASA TV on our computers, counting off every milestone in the tortuous “Entry, Descent and Landing” timetable, we’ll know if Curiosity either landed safely on Mars, having been lowered down onto the surface via the revolutionary “Skycrane”, or if Something Went Wrong and the rover was lost. It’s going to be a long, long day…
If all goes well, by this time tomorrow we’ll have a new rover on Mars, a nuclear-powered, laser-toting, monster truck of a robot that will drive into the heart of an ancient crater and scale the mountain rising up from its centre. Curiosity is NOT, despite what many people in the media – who really should know better – “look for life on Mars”. It will be looking for evidence that Mars might once, in its deep, deep past, have been habitable. It will use its incredible suite of cutting edge scientific instruments to analyse the rocks, dust and dirt to see what Mars was like millennia ago, to see what conditions were like then. It might, might, actually find traces of past martian life. Not fossils, not bones, more like chemical stains leftover from the demise of martian life. If that happens, wow, that really will be history-making, and it would revolutionise our understanding of not just Mars but our very place in the universe. But that’s a longshot. Curiosity’s main job is, using its instruments, reach and study the rocks inside Gale crater, and the layers of that mountain, to travel back in time and find out if Mars would have been a more “life friendly” place in the deep, deep past. It will drive across Gale crater, on a path towards its centre, sending back incredible images every day, seeing sights never before seen on Mars. And we’ll be able to walk alongside her, sharing the sunsets and sunrises, watching the landscape open up around us.
Truly, a new adventure is about to begin.
Of course, things might not turn out that way. Mars is a beautiful planet, a noble planet, an epic planet, but it does not appreciate, or welcome, visitors from Earth. It takes a fierce delight in killing spaceprobes, and it will not welcoem Curiosity with open arms. Mars has a “My Big Book Of Ways To Kill Spaceprobes”, and it has read it from cover to cover. Some of its favourite chapters are “Brew up a dust storm to hide the Sun”, “Make a wheel jam” and “Camouflage a crater in the rover’s path so it gets stuck in dust and can never get out”. And I’ve no doubt that even now, as Curiosity screams towards Mars and its date with destiny, Mars is thinking of ways to kill her. And she’s got plenty of options: a parachute failure would doom Curiosity, slamming her into the surface without braking; a radar failure would achieve the same thing, as would a failure of the descent stage’s engines, or the Skycrane’s tether, or… or…
If the landing fails, if Curiosity falls foul of Mars, tomorrow will be a very bad day, and a very dark time indeed will begin for NASA. After a period of despair, disappointment and recriminations they’ll dust themselves off and, learning from what happened, try again, as they always do, but there is so much riding on Curiosity, it has such important work to do, such fundamental questions to answer, that if it doesn’t land safely – well, the very thought of that makes me go cold.
But that’s NOT going to happen! Confidence is extremely high that Curiosity will land safely on Mars, having survived the “7 minutes of terror”everyone has now heard about so many times. All will be well. You’ll see.
As I write this, at 10.05 on Sunday morning, the minutes are ticking away, and, yes, I’m nervous – but excited too. If Curiosity lands safely tomorrow, a whole new age of martian exploration will begin. New technologies will have been proven to work, and will be approved for future, even more ambitious missions, possibly to other planets and bodies in the solar system. And I truly believe that a succesful landing by Curiosity will be the first step towards putting people on Mars, possibly even in my lifetime. And if the rover does find evidence of past martian life, well, that would make a manned Mars mission *much* more likely, in my opinion –
But that’s all for the future. The rover has to land first, after screaching and screaming through the martian atmosphere. Then its parachute has to open. Then its descent stage has to separate safely, and brake its fall. Then the Skycrane has to work, lowering it gently to the surface – a surface without big, rover-killing rocks. Then the tether has to cut cleanly, allowing the descent stage to fly away wthout dragging the rover with it…
Worried? Me? Naah.
I must admit that the first time I watched the animation of Curiosity’s landing, and saw it being lowered down from the hovering descemt stage on what looked suspiciously like a bitof rope my first reaction was “Are you having a ****** laugh??? That’s INSANE!!!!”
And that first impression took a while to shake off. It just looked so… crazy! It looked like something off “Thunderbirds”! But as time passed, and I learned more about it, as it was explained to me by people who have forgotten more about space technology than I could ever know, I came to trust the Skycrane technique and technology. And after all, what the hell do I know?! I’m no engineer or rocket scientist! The people who build and design these things are geniuses!! They don’t just cobble these designs together with bits of Lego, or scribble them on beer mats in the corners of smoky pubs, they know what they’re doing. No. If that’s the best way to land Curiosity safely on Mars, then that’s the best way, end of story.
But still… you know… phew…
So, for all of us following the mission – planetary scientists gathered at JPL for the landing, or armchair explorers scattered around the globe, today will be a day of waiting, a day of killing time, of looking at the clock, and our watches, of quickly calculating how many hours are left until landing.
We’ve been through this before, of course, with the MER landings and the Phoenix landing too. I remember the MER landings, back in 2004, very vividly. I watched them live on my computer, as did many thousands of others around the world. I sat there, in the early hours, surrounded by half-drunk cups of coffee and empty bags of Maltesers and Nik Naks, glued to the monitor, watching NASA TV, fighting to stay awake. This was in the days before I had broadband, so I watched everything on a dialup connection, and the picture in the tiny Realplayer screen kept breaking up into a kaleidescope of garishly-coloured pixels, or rebuffering at bad times, when something important or exciting was about to happen! Nightmare! I screamed “No!!!!” at the screen so many times during those landings, as I lost the picture, that I went hoarse. But thankfully I didn’t miss anything important and was “there ” when the rovers landed safely, and I cheered as the science teams and engineers packed into the control room at JPL cheered at the news that the rovers were down safely and sending back data, and then whooped with joy and delight when the first imagescame back. I Saved them on my PC and looked at them again and again and again, marvelling at the sight of new rocks revealed on the New World. Around the world, many, many thousands of people must have done exactly the same, and experienced the same gut-wracking angst and fear – and then the same flood of relief and joy – that I did.
…and tomorrow morning we’ll go through it all over again. Some things will be different this time, very different. NASA TV is slicker and flashier now. Computer graphics are better, waaay better, and thanks to the incredible new “Eyes on the Solar System” site tomorrow morning we’ll be able to follow Curiosity’s arrival and landing in real time, watching events unfold as they happen. Tomorrow morning we will be able to truly witness the landing, to be immersed in it and enveloped by it. I’m looking forward to that, but have a bit of a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach too, as these minutes tick away.
If all goes well, we should have some pictures fairly soon after landing. Not jaw-dropping colour pictures, not high definition panoramas, but thumbnail images confirming the rover is down safely, giving us a tantalising glimpse of the landscape around her. It will take another few hours until we really see Gale Crater, and begin to get a sense of just what lies ahead.
And what an incredible place Curisoity is going to. Gale Crater was chosen for scientific reasons – the variety of rocks and landforms it contains, the geology it offers, the layers its central mountain is constructed from – but it is a beautiful place too. Much, much larger than any crater yet visited by a robot from Earth, it just looks epic, doesn’t it?
Curiosity will land at the bottom of the crater as it’s shown in the picture above, between the crater wall and the band of dark dunes which curves around the crater’s mountainous centre…
…and then, over time, work her way towards the heart of the crater, with a view to driving up into the foothills of that central mountain to study the rocks and layers there. And maybe, in the far future, she’ll drive onwards, climbing higher, setting her sights on the summit of the mountain itself..? Wouldn’t that be a great adventure! (Update: I just heard NASA Mars scientist Matt Golombeck telling an event in California that MSL *can’t* drive to the top because the hillside’s material is too light and fluffy. We’ll see…😉 )
But that’s for the far future. Just getting to the foothills of the mountain will be challenging enough.
And we need to talk about that mountain.
For quite some time now, NASA has been referring to it as “Mt Sharp”, after the rover team christened it that to honour the planetary geologist Robert Sharp. Read the MSL press releases and updates from NASA and they all refer to Curiosity climbing/approaching/studying “Mt Sharp”. As far as the mission is concerned, and as far as many people “out here” following the mission are concerned, Gale’s heart is “Mount Sharp”.
That’s not its official name.
Let me explain.
Mt Sharp is the name given to the mountain by the MSL team in March 2012, and it’s been generally accepted by most people. But that is, essentially, just a working name, a nickname, because the mountain actually has an ‘official’ name, given to it in May 2012 by the body that is in charge of naming features, places and bodies inthe solar system, the Intenational Astronomical Union. They gave it the formal name “Aeolis Mons“, and named a crater, 160 miles away from Gale, after Robert Sharp instead.
Which is, actually, when you lo0k at the rules, fair enough. The convention IS to name craters on Mars after scientists, so naming one after Robert Sharp is continuing that tradition and obeying that convention. Having said that, personally I can’t see anything wrong with referring to the mountain as Mt Sharp. Not just because it’s – and this will sound very shallow, I know, sorry! – just a catchier name than ‘Aeolis Mons’, but because it’s a name that more people will be able to remember and identify with, and by “people” I mean both the public and journalists. I mean, on a very basic level, it’s a mountain, and in its centre is a peak which looks pointy and sharp…
… so in my humble, means-nothing opinion,”Mt Sharp” is a very fitting name. Easy to say, easy to remember, it works for me.
So, although officially its name IS “Aeolis Mons”, and we should remember that and not just dismiss it, this blog will be referring to it as “Mt Sharp”. That’s just a personal decision, and everyone is free to call it by whichever name they prefer, for whatever reason they have. But if you visit this site in the days, weeks, and months ahead, you’ll be reading about “Mt Sharp”, ok?
Hmmm. I’ve been writing this blog post for an hour. Curiosity is an hour closer to landing than it was when I started. I definitely have butterflies in my stomach now, fluttering about, and they’re NOT using Skycranes. I can’t help wondering how the people involved in the mission must be feeling. I mean, if I’m this nervous, and I’m just an enthusiastic observer, then how the hell must the men and women involved IN the mission actually be feeling?! How must it feel to have LIVED this mission, for years, to have poured your heart and soul into it, to have staked your career on it, and now be absolutely utterly totally ****** helpless as the rover screams towards Mars? I’d be curled up in a corner somewhere, gibbering like a lunatic.
I am lucky and priviliged to actually know some of the people involved in the mission. Among Curiosity’s team of drivers are MER veterans Scott Maxwell and Paolo Bellutta, both of whom I am honoured to be able to call friends. I know they’ll be nervous, but excited at the prospect of driving Curiosity across Gale Crater towards the foothills of Mt Sharp, and I wish them both – and everyone on the team – the very best of luck. They won’t be curled up in a corner, and they certainly won’t be gibbering. They’ve got nerves of steel and liquid nitrogen for blood, those guys, and they’ll be eager to just get started and to start driving.
But I bet they’re clock-watching too.
( By the way, there’s an absolutely *fantastic* interview with Scott Maxwell up on the CNN website, here… )
And looking at the clock I can see it’s now time to wrap up this introductory post and go and Do Something Else, or I’ll jabber on all day!
Almost there. Almost there…