Once again, intelligent life forms on Earth will have an opportunity to watch a “live” broadcast from the surface of Mars as NASA’s latest Mars mission, the Mars Science Laboratory aboard the “Curiosity” rover touches down (hopefully!) on the surface of Mars inside Gale Crater. The landing is scheduled to take place at approximately 05:31 UTC August 6th (12:31 AM US Central Time August 6th; 1:31 AM US Eastern Time August 6th; 10:31 PM US Pacific Time August 5th; 11:31 PM US Mountain Time August 5th). The broadcast will be available on NASA TV (http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html) and on USTREAM (http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl). We advise our readers to check out these websites well ahead of time in order to make sure that you have the software installed on your computer in order to be able to see the broadcasts. Familiarize yourself with the sites at least a couple of hours before the event, and make sure that you have the web feed running long before the site gets blasted with hundreds of thousands of “hits” in the minutes before the scheduled landing.
This phase of the mission should be very interesting due to the extremely complex engineering solution created in order to land the “Curiosity” rover on Mars in one piece. Unlike the previous two rovers, “Spirit” and “Opportunity”, which were packed inside a bundle of inflatable air bags and bounced across the Martian surface before successfully being deployed, this much heavier (1 metric ton) rover’s descent craft will be required to make a series of highly complex operations within a very tight timeframe in order for this craft to deploy to the surface of the Red Planet. The most difficult aspect of the landing will take place as the descent craft, using retro rockets to stabilize itself above the landing site at Gale Crater, will attempt to utilize a device called a “sky crane” to gently lower the rover on cables down to the surface. At the time that the rover touches down, the rocket-propelled landing craft will be too close to the rover momentarily; the blast from the landing craft’s rockets against the surface of the planet as it hovers during the “sky crane” operation will threaten to cover the rover with dust and perhaps small rocks that could damage it severely; so the cables will need to be immediately severed and then the landing craft will fly away to crash a safe distance from the lander.
NASA has produced an excellent video which describes the Mars atmosphere entry sequence to touchdown in Gale Crater, which has become something of an Internet sensation itself. Dubbed “Seven Minutes of Terror” the video shows graphically how daunting the engineering challenges are facing anyone attempting to land a spacecraft on Mars. The “solution” to this series of potentially spacecraft-killing problems selected by NASA will be, if successful, one of the most astounding achievements by any team of engineers involved in space exploration to date. The video is absolutely a must-watch video. It is designed to inspire a healthy respect for science and engineering in everyone who watches it; if you haven’t seen it, click on the blue link above and enjoy! It is superbly done.
Speaking in the “Seven Minutes” video of the intricate series of planned maneuvers necessary in order to place the rover on Mars, Dr. Adam Steltzner of the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) team says: “When people look at it, uh… it looks crazy. That’s a very natural thing. Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy. It is the result of reasoned engineering thought. But it still looks crazy.”
To say that it would be a minor miracle for all this to happen flawlessly would be a vast understatement; but NASA’s engineers appear confident that they can pull this off.
[The NASA website has a really amazing application with which you can track the spacecraft in real time as it lands on Mars. It’s called “Eyes on the Solar System” and with it, you can use your mouse to zoom in on the craft as it approaches mars, view the landing site and zoom throughout the solar system. It will give you the precise real-time distance between the spacecraft and Mars and there are buttons you can click on which will show you a preview of the Entry, Descent and Landing sequence!]
As fascinating as the scientific discoveries this rover can make will undoubtedly be (providing that it survives the descent to the surface intact) Curiosity will not, however, have the capability to confirm or disprove whether there has ever been life on Mars. It will be able to perform several kinds of experiments that will provide tantalizing clues as to whether or not liquid water ever flowed in Gale Crater and it may perhaps be able to discern whether or not various types of organic matter were produced there.
The previous two rovers, “Spirit” and “Opportunity” were deployed perfectly and vastly exceeded their originally expected 90-day lifespan, providing amazing images of the Martian surface and scouring away surface dust from rocks in order to analyze their composition. The two rovers made major scientific discoveries, including the confirmation that there was a period or perhaps periods where liquid water definitely flowed on Mars. Clear evidence of serial deposition of sediment by water was seen in the geologic layers of rock formations. Late last year it was announced that the “Opportunity” rover had discovered unambiguous evidence that water had flowed on Mars: a vein of gypsum was discovered coursing through a rock deposit in Endeavour crater.
“This is the single most powerful piece of evidence for liquid water at Mars that has been discovered by the Opportunity rover… there was a fracture in the rock, water flowed through it, gypsum was precipitated from the water. End of story” Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Opportunity’s principal investigator, told the 2011 winter meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
Gale Crater, the landing site for the “Curiosity” rover, was chosen because it has one of the lowest elevations on the surface of Mars and is right on the border of a transitional boundary from the “southern highlands” to the “northern lowlands”. At this boundary scientists believe that, billions of years ago, water flowed. The object that crashed into Mars creating Gale Crater scooped out a tremendous amount of rock and soil, digging a hole, essentially, into which water was able to flow freely. By landing “Curiosity” at the bottom of Gale Crater, scientists hope to be placing the craft smack in the middle of one of the best locations on Mars for finding proof of this theory.
Speaking at a press conference held by NASA on July 16, MSL Project Scientist John Grotzinger described the landing site: Gale Crater is “the width of the Los Angeles basin… and in the middle of it, we have a mountain called ‘Mount Sharpe’ [which has] 5 kilometers of relief on it.” The scientists intend to spend a couple of months readying Curiosity for a trip to the base of Mt. Sharpe to take a close look at the exposed geologic layers of this huge mountain, “larger than any mountain in the lower 48 states” according to Dr. Grotzinger. On the way, a number of instruments on board the rover will undertake experiments to determine the mineralogy of the crater and will analyze and photograph the region.
The NASA scientists had a number of landing sites to choose from that promised to contain interesting and varied topography and mineral deposits. They narrowed down their search to just 4 sites and then selected Gale Crater for its unique combination of mineralogical, apparent depositional and geological characteristics. The “landing ellipse” plotted out by NASA engineers – the rough location of where Curiosity will touch down – places it very close to the base of Mt. Sharpe, and in a relatively smooth plain where several different intriguing features of the Martian surface are within a very short distance of the rover’s landing site. If all goes well, Curiosity will find itself at the edge of what appears very much to be an “alluvial fan”; on Earth, this type of deposit of sediment occurs at the mouth of rivers. The potential for scientific discovery here is tremendous.
This project is an excellent example of the kind of work that the talents of the entire human race should be gathered together for. That even such a chaotic and destructive economic system as capitalism has been able to achieve such amazing feats of engineering skill and scientific endeavor in spite of the fact that hundreds of millions of human beings living under the system all over the world will never get to see the inside of a school is both a tribute to capitalism and condemns it.
Under a workers government, under a democratically planned socialist system, every single child on Earth will have the opportunity to go to school and study science. Under capitalism hundreds of millions of young children will never get that opportunity, and their unique talents will never be given the chance to develop and to contribute to the solution of the many complex problems facing human society. By abolishing the capitalist system and replacing it with an egalitarian socialist economic system, we will reap the amazing harvest of talent that now languishes in poverty all over the world. Only then will we be able to find out what amazing things humanity living in universal peace and harmony can achieve.