7 minutes of dread…
Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss the Mars Science Laboratory at 1 minute 33 seconds in this clip:
Just watch the video, an animation of Curiosity’s landing on Mars. It’s amazing. I wish I had been a Martian standing there watching it land. It would have been awe-inspiring.
Anyway, this week’s landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) (which is the rover called ‘Curiosity’ and it’s associated science equipment) was the culmination of one phase of the work of a great number of scientists over many years. Videos of dancing scientists and engineers in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and about a million celebratory tweets, highlight the importance of those crucial few minutes when Curiosity was touching down.
The thing is, though, that Mars is a long way away and radio transmissions from the planet take a long time to get back to Earth – 7 minutes to be exact. Hence the subtitle of this piece – 7 minutes of dread. Try to imaging what it must have been like for all of the people associated with getting the rover to Mars. They had spent years planning and building for every contingency, systems on board had multiple redundancy as a hedge against failure, everyone was certain that nothing could go wrong… But you just never know, do you? The entire assemblage of space vehicles and parts was programmed to go through a choreographed sequence – brake against the weak Martian atmosphere, adjust trajectory, jetison heat shield, deploy parachute, fire rockets, lower Curiosity on tethers, cut tethers – what could go wrong? Meanwhile, back on Earth, scientists have to wait during the time Curiosity is supposed to have landed because radio transmission to verify a successful landing takes 7 minutes to get here. During that time, Curiosity might have been fine – or it might have been a mass of twisted wreckage blotting the Martian landscape. For those waiting, 7 minutes of dread indeed.
The picture says it all. I’m sure the 7 minutes probably seemed to last 7 years but, very shortly after the allotted time came the first transmission of a successful landing on the red planet. My sincere congratulations to all of the women and men who have devoted their scientific careers to making such an incredible moment.
What now? Curiosity has already turned its systems on and verified that everything seems to be in working order. It will just sit for a bit and sample its surroundings using a vast array of cameras and scientific gadgetry designed to look for, amongst other things, signs of life. Once it has the lay of the land, the rover will head out to explore the environs of the giant crater that it has landed in. Experiments are set to run for almost the next two Earth
years (one Martian year). Will Curiosity find life? Probably not giant life forms but, hey, we’d be happy with a few biomolecules like amino acids or nucleic acids. Anything that gives us a clue about what went on in Mars’ past.
What a giant step for Science.