Nowadays everyone calls it the “Curiosity rover,” but I got to know it as the Mars Science Laboratory, and I’m too old and set in my ways to switch. Launched on November 26, 2011, the mission is scheduled to land on Mars’s Gale Crater tonight/tomorrow morning: 5:31 UTC, which translates to 1:30 a.m. Eastern time or 10:20 p.m. Pacific. See here and here for info about where to watch. Between this and the Higgs boson, the universe is clearly conspiring to keep science enthusiasts on the East Coast from getting a proper night’s sleep.
NASA has done a great job getting people excited about the event, and one of their big successes has been this video, “Seven Minutes of Terror.” Love the ominous soundtrack.
Mars is about fourteen light-minutes away from Earth, so scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory aren’t actually able to fine-tune the spacecraft’s approach, like you used to do playing Lunar Lander in the arcade back in the day. Everything has to be carefully programmed well ahead of time, setting up an elaborately choreographed series of events that guides the lander through the seven-minute journey from the top of the Martian atmosphere to eventual touchdown. I still struggle with parallel parking, which is why I’m a theoretical physicist and not a JPL engineer.
This isn’t NASA’s first rodeo, of course. In 1997, the Mars Pathfinder mission sent an impossibly cute rover named Sojourner scurrying across the red planet’s landscape. The Mars Exploration Rover then landed in 2004, which included the plucky Spirit and Opportunity rovers. NASA lost contact with Spirit in 2010, after six years of operations, while Opportunity is still puttering along over eight years later. Not bad, considering the missions were originally planned to last for only 90 days.
Compared to the previous rovers, Curiosity is whomping big. It’s about the size of a Mini Cooper: ten feet long and massing 900 kg. (You would like to say “weighing about a ton,” but gravity on Mars is 38% that on Earth, so this is one of those times the mass/weight distinction is kind of crucial.) From left to right, here are models of Spirit/Opportunity (which were identical), Sojourner, and Curiosity, with some carbon-based life forms in the middle.
Unlike the previous solar-powered rovers, Curiosity runs on a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, so it won’t be subject to the whims of dust storms. It should be good for fourteen years worth of operations. Along the way, we’ll learn about Mars’s atmosphere and geology, and poke around looking for cave paintings or other signs of life. So here’s hoping we get through the seven minutes of terror safely, and inaugurate a new era in our exploration of the fourth rock from the Sun.