NASA’s Curiosity rover landed itself on Mars today. I’ve been following this for a while online and had three alarms set to make sure I got to watch it live. I was awake before the first one went off but once I got online the first things I saw was mission control cheering – I thought I had missed it! They were just cheering that the last step had gone according to plan and once I realized Curiosity was still in the air I sat back and watched her burn on in.
Everything about this mission absolutely floors me. Once launched this car sized, one ton, nuclear powered vehicle navigated to Mars on its own. Then in orbit around Mars it flung itself at the surface nearly 7 times faster than a bullet exits a high powered rifle. Deploying the largest heat shield ever developed it was able to maintain directional control during decent completely autonomously. Once it was inside the Martian atmosphere it deployed a first of it kind supersonic parachute that extended back from the landing vehicle more than half a football field. The chute slowed Curiosity from over 13,000m/s to under 200m/s – the equivalent of stopping a car traveling 65MPH in less than two seconds. At 200m/s the chute cut away and the landing platform fired its rockets basically bringing the rover into a hover over the surface. A series of three cables then lowered the rover to the surface landing it on the wheels it will be traveling on for the duration of it’s mission!
We so much science fiction in the movies and on TV that I think a lot of people take for granted the kind of skill, precision, and intense scientific know-how it took to make this happen. We designed and launched a robot into space that flew itself to Mars and then landed itself on the surface with zero interaction from us using three brand new technologies, one which had never been used on the scale it was for this mission, and the other two never used before period! This is a phenomenal accomplishment and NASA should be applauded – loudly!
On top of actually just getting there – the rover started working immediately. Literally within seconds of landing it began transmitting photos through a series of surveillance platforms in orbit around Mars. And again, it did all this without any human intervention. Absolutely phenomenal! I used to think that in my lifetime I would be able to visit the moon commercially – missions like this make me think that maybe Mars would be within my reach. It is certainly a possibility within Sydney’s lifetime. Imagine that – a post from The Godwin’s on Mars! This mission completely amazes me.