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Sunday, August 5, 2012


On 23November2011 I discussed the background and wondered about the value of Curiosity.   Let me this time be a tad more positive.  To summarize:

  1.  It was 36 years ago that Viking I landed on Mars when I had my greatest summer vacation, working at the NASA Ames Research Center, and fortuitously found myself in an auditorium electronically linked with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to be the first to view, line-by-line, the transmission from Mars, before the photo was released to the general public.  Carl Sagan was with us on an observing panel and not on Mars with Viking, the photo to the left.

Nostalgia just washes over, as I was staying at a dormitory on the Stanford campus just across the street from where I lived as a freshman 18 years previously.  I had rented the largest TV I could find, 36 inches, which was the shape of a cube and weighed a ton, literally.  The 1976 Montreal Olympics were on that summer and I spent my time watching the events, taking a wine tasting course, golfing several times a week and developing a concept to detect Earth-sized extrasolar planets.  I was then in my fourth year as a faculty member of the University of Hawaii.

Viking I (took this photo of the Mars landscape) and II cost about a billion dollars, or between  $3 billion and $10 billion in 2012 dollars, depending on which economic comparison.  It was worth it because this was only seven years since Armstrong's  first Man on Our Moon (the Apollo Project's cost today would be around $200 billion) and still 15 years from the end of the Cold War (which was just about exactly 21 years ago).  A $2.5 billion expense today for Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, which while I still think could have been better spent, nevertheless conjures the potential of finding green ladies, or, perhaps a microorganism.  After all, we have on Planet Earth bacteria that thrive at 340 C (644 F) and psychrophiles (just another kind of bacteria) below have been observed at minus 12 C (10 F, remembering that 32 F is the freezing point).

2.  However, to quote from that 23November2011 blog:

This will be the 40th such international attempt to/on/around Mars, and two-thirds have in some way failed. 

More so, we've already been there and detected nothing even close to any prospects for life.  The best that Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the NASA Mars Exploration Program, could say was:

It has potential, yes.  Do think it will (find life)?  Probably not, just knowing how difficult this is.  I half expect that we'll find (just) enough information that we'll be desperate to go back.

Here are a few of those Mars probes:

3.  This fact is downplayed, and sometimes referred to as a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) , but the power for Curiosity comes from something carefully called a nuclear battery, which is powered by 10.6 pounds of plutonium dioxide.  The photo to the left is the Multi Mission RTG, and to the right, the details (click on it to enlarge).

4.  Mind you, the landing will not be a slam dunk.  The craft will have traveled 352 million miles and needs to, in seven minutes, decelerate--reaching a peak shield  temperature of 3800 degrees F--from 13,000 MPH to zero on the surface at 7:31PM Hawaii time on Sunday, August 5, tonight.  Russia, Great Britain, China and Japan have all recently mostly met with disaster.   If Curiosity lands successfully on Mars, here is an artist's rendering.  As we've already largely spent a couple of billion, let us hope for awesome success, finding definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life.  Now, that would be monumental!

(If you live in Honolulu, you can join us at the Institute for Astronomy from 6PM to 8PM at 2680 Woodlawn Drive to yourself experience the landing of Curiosity.  There is no charge, and so will be parking.  Return here later for a summary.  Or, you can go to the Bishop Museum from 6:30PM to 10PM.  Free if you're a member, or $10 for adults and $5 for kids 4-12.  In the USA, the landing on the West Coast is at 10:31PM and 1:31AM on the East Coast, but there are various welcoming facilities throughout the nation at no or minimal cost.  On the other hand, you might want to stay at home and link to the live NASA USTREAM or watch NASA TV.)

I might indicate that a Russian attempt called Fobos-Grunt (wishful depiction to the left), with China, Finland, Bulgaria and the Planetary Society as partners, also launched last year, and had all the ingredients for a movie:  bring samples back from the moon Phobos, conspiracy (head of the Russian space agency Vladimir Popovkin suggested that America sabotaged the project) and a potentially cataclysmic crash into the Pacific Ocean (with particularly dangerous chemicals if falling over a city).  Hey, they only spent about one-fifteenth what it cost us for Curiosity.  Yet, just another spectacular embarrassment successfully fended off by the God of War, Mars.

Here is the landing site to the left.  Oh, one more thing.  After the nine month journey and seven minutes of terror, even if everything went perfectly, it might be possible that we won't receive any signals for hours, maybe even a whole day.  At that point, though, the projected scenarios look bad, very bad.  The signals themselves will  take just under 14 minutes to reach us, but there are countless potential unknowns  Incidentally, did you know that one day for Mars is 24 hours and 40 minutes?  Curiosity will hopefully teach us a lot more about this Red Planet:

There are five ocean storms in the Pacific and Atlantic.  The most serious at this point is Haikui, now at 65 MPH, but soon to become a typhoon and heading just south of Shanghai, perhaps seriously affecting Zhoushan:

The other is Tropical Storm Ernesto at 50 MPH, now well south of Jamaica, but soon to attain hurricane strength, and expected to slam into the Yucatan Peninsula, just north of Belize City.

However, this might not be the end of Ernesto, for models show him remaining in form to perhaps strengthen again in the Gulf.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.