Aug 022012
 

 

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars’ past or present ability to sustain microbial life, depicted in an artist illustration on the surface of Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

My posts on this site have stressed that good science fiction is not about machines and high tech. It’s about people. But what about science news?

The big news right now out of NASA is about this weekend‘s landing of NASA’s Martian Science Laboratory, a car-sized, nuclear-powered rover called Curiosity. When it attempts to land on Mars this late Sunday night Pacific Time, all eyes will be on a machine, right?

Not really.

Only the Mars orbiter Odyssey will have its eyes on the rover as it streaks through the thin Martian atmosphere toward it’s inevitable meeting with the surface, one way or another. Odyssey will be the machine that tells us of Curiosity’s fate.

Our eyes will be on the people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who proposed, designed and built Curiosity, the people who spent years planning and developing the project. If Curiosity lands successfully, many of them will spend at least another two years – one Martian year – guiding the rover across Gale crater and up Mount Sharp, a peak at the crater’s center, Scientists will spend even more years analyzing what Curiosity finds. Or Curiosity could end up a crumpled heat at the foot of Mount Sharp.

We have invested our lives over the last three years into these machines, and they carry our hopes, our dreams, our imagination, and our souls to a cold, ancient world so that we can try to unlock its secrets

This will be a very anxious time for the team members at JPL, yet the fate of all their plans and efforts will be sealed before they know it – 14 minutes before they know it. As Curiosity lands beyond the Martian horizon as seen from Earth, Odyssey in an uncaring way will relay the signals from Curiosity as it nears the surface. The signals will continue after Curiosity lands, or they will abruptly stop.

Our eyes will be fixed on the scene at JPL. We will either see jubilation or heartbreak on the faces of the engineers and scientists to tell us of the success or failure of Curiosity. This is a very human drama, for curiosity is a very human trait.

Mark Adler, mission manager for the previous twin Martian Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, describes the rovers we send to Mars as “an extension of ourselves reaching out to touch another world. They do not explore Mars. We do.”

Adler describes the experience as seeing “through their eyes…. We go over there with their wheels, and we grab the dirt and the rocks with their arms.”

But its more than that, Adler said on the NASA/JPL website.

We have invested our lives over the last three years into these machines, and they carry our hopes, our dreams, our imagination, and our souls to a cold, ancient world so that we can try to unlock its secrets. On this Earth full of life, there is nothing in my mind that distinguishes us from the other animals more – there is nothing more human — than our relentless desire and our nearly unbounded ability to explore.”

For the team now guiding Curiosity to Mars and their collective fate, they have the confidence of their efforts, yet are nagged by the thought of some undiscovered glitch, some cruel trick that Mars has ready to play on them, as it has on nearly half the probes sent to the Red Planet. Late Saturday night, Pacific time, they will listen for a signal from the surface of Mars, and hope it arrives.

We will see the result in their eyes.

 

 

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