Curiosity pulled it off. Now everything rests in the terrain's hands.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Yesterday was a pretty remarkable day. NASA's Curiosity, a rover the size of a Mini, made a successful precision landing using an automated sequence making use of a heat shield followed by a parachute, then retro-rockets, then a sky crane, and then more retro-rockets to move away from the rover which had just touched down. Very nail-biting and very impressive that everything went according to plan. The images of utter joy at mission control in NASA were great to watch. The landing sequence takes place in the first three minutes of this video:

I love the guy with the moussed-up hair pacing back and forth.

After landing we got a picture right away showing the surface, very low resolution but great to have so soon after landing. Today we got this showing the mountain (Aeolis Mons / Mount Sharp) nearby:

In a few days after Curiosity deploys its mast we'll see much better images, in high resolution with colour, and the rover itself will move about 30 metres per hour, about the distance the rovers from 2003 (and one still going) went in a day. Furthermore, this rover is nuclear-powered which means no more sitting around during the winter.

So far so good! For more information see just about any space-related site. What effect will this have on space exploration in the near future? The answer to that lies in the terrain, the crater itself. The amount of attention paid to a mission is a combination of 1) the mission itself and 2) the amount of PR carried out. Some missions like Lunar Prospector from the 90s were fairly interesting in terms of 1) but had nothing in terms of 2). Phoenix Lander was an example of a mission with fairly low both 1) and 2) in that the mission did not last too long, nor did the lander move about, and 2) because not moving about makes it hard to promote a mission in the eyes of the public. Japan's Kaguya which orbited the moon is a good example of a mission with an okay amount of 1) but very, very good 2), with high-res videos aplenty that were viewed and shared everywhere online. China's Chang'e 3 next year has a lot of 1), and it remains to be seen how much 2) there will be - that will depend on China.

So what will really drive continued interest in this mission will be continued discovery, high-res images, and headline after headline. If this crater turns out to be as interesting as expected then it will greatly further our understanding of Mars and give more insights into its formation, previous climate, possibility for life then or even now, and there stands a much greater chance of other ambitious missions being approved. We'll find out in a few weeks just how interesting this crater is, and from that we'll know how much of a long-term effect this mission will have on interest and future funding.


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