Monday morning at 1:31 a.m. EDT, NASA’s Curiosity rover officially touched down on the surface of Mars. Best of all, everything checks out. Early word is that everything is fine with the rover, so fine that if you were watching NASA’s live feed of the event, what you saw were a lot of hard-working NASA engineers celebrating and hugging while completely ignoring all the data appearing on their computers and calls for attention coming from their superiors. What you saw was this…
It seems like you can’t go two minutes on the internet these days without hearing about the impending landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. NASA has outdone themselves with a public relations and media machine that has covered this unmanned science mission in more ways and with more frequency than any other robotic mission before it. So with videogames, Star Trek actor-narrated videos, and public interaction with the project every step of the way through its manufacture and launch, you have to ask the question, what happens if the rover crashes?
You’ve heard about the “seven minutes of terror,” you’ve seen the animations, you know just how complicated the landing of the Curiosity rover will be. You also may or may not know that when it comes to landing spacecraft on Mars, Earth has about a 40% success rate at not adding new craters to the red planet’s surface. Sure, we’ve gotten better at designing super-complicated craft and refining our mission strategies over the years, but there is still a large margin for error to consider. You’d think that with the odds so stacked against success, NASA wouldn’t be tooting its horn so much, but then again it may not have much of a choice.
No, that’s not a crater you’re looking at, that is actually a giant hole on Mars. The red planet has some unique features that set it apart from the rest of the solar system, such as the tallest Volcano (Olympus Mons) and the largest canyon (Valles Marineris), but now it’s surprising scientists with another feature, maybe not as unique as the first two but the first found so far on its surface. Situated on the slopes of the dormant Pavonis Mons volcano on Mars’ equator, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a shot of what appears to be a large hole in the surface of the planet.
First spotted by the context (CTX) camera, a black and white camera used for wide angle views of the planet’s surface, the research team saw what appeared to be an unusual black smudge on the side of Pavonis Mons. When the team turned the MRO’s HiRISE camera (the largest deep space telescope ever constructed that can detect objects as small as a meter across) to the spot, they found that the black smudge was actually a skylight into an underground cavern measuring about 35 meters across. The cavern itself is believed to be an old lava tube created while the volcano was still active. According to the HiRISE team’s website, they’ve used the angle of the shadow to calculate that the hole is about 20 meters deep.
The days are ticking away until the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity rover, makes an extremely complicated landing on the surface of Mars. NASA has promoted the mission pretty hard over the last year with everything from allowing people to send their names to the Mars via digital storage on the rover itself, to several NASA Social events slated to celebrate its arrival this August. In what is probably the coolest promotion for an unmanned scientific mission ever, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in partnership with Microsoft and Smoking Gun Interactive, has released Mars Rover Landing, a new Kinect game available for free through Xbox Live.
The game allows players the opportunity (no pun intended) to control the craft during what has been referred to as the “7 minutes of Terror” as the craft enters the Martian atmosphere, deploys chutes and then lowers the Curiosity rover on a sky crane while making a propulsive landing. Being a simulation of the landing, it’s no surprise that Mars Rover Landing is a relatively short game. Using the Kinect, you first keep the craft in the appropriate position during atmospheric entry with a mean game of hokey pokey, and then open the chutes by using perfectly timed swipes of your hand. After that, you use your hands as throttles on the propulsive landing portion to try and get your lander into the bulls eye targeting zone before running out of fuel sort of like a Kinect version of the old Atari game Lunar Lander. If you are good enough, you’ll end up winning some awards in the form of a hat, shirt, and something called “Mars surface pants” for your Xbox Avatar.
We’ve spent a ton of money trying to find life on Mars. The US alone has had 20 missions that studied Mars, each with highly advanced hardware either landing on or aimed at the red planet’s surface. We’ve gotten some wonderful info about the make up of the Martian atmosphere and geology, but when it comes to the hunt for Martians, all we’ve gotten to show for it is a steadily increasing garbage heap of million dollar rovers lying around on the surface like beer cans on the front lawn of a frat house.
Purdue professor Jay Melosh thinks we may not have to go quite that far to get results though. He thinks we could possibly find Martians on the surface of the planet’s moon Phobos.
In a recent article at ScienceDaily.com, Melosh says that his work on a study preparing for the doomed Phobos-Grunt Mission revealed that material ejected from the planet’s surface during a large asteroid impact could have been deposited on its small, irregularly-shaped moon. No, it’s not going to be Martians of the three-eyed, tripod-piloting, deathray-wielding sort, but ancient microbes thrown up off the surface of Mars during colossal impacts. Microscopic evidence of life could stay on the surface of Phobos undisturbed by atmospheric effects for 10 million years until radiation exposure destroyed all traces of it. Melosh says that there have been at least 4 impact events in the past 10 million years that have been large enough to deposit material all over Phobos, and that no matter where it was in its orbit at the time, the moon was sure to scoop up some of the debris.
The Mars Science Laboratory, also dubbed Curiosity, was launched on November 26, 2011, and is scheduled to land in Gale Crater on August 6, 2012. Its mission includes searching for signs of life — past or present — studying the climate and geology of the Martian surface, and otherwise collecting data. The trick is getting it to the surface in one piece, and as the below video from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory demonstrates, the EDL phase — entry, descent, and landing — will be a nerve-wracking process with zero margin for error. To make matters worse, the 14-minute lag in communications between Earth and Mars means that, by the time the Curiosity team receives word that the rover has begun to enter Mars’ atmosphere, Curiosity will have already been safely on Martian soil for seven minutes…or destroyed for that same amount of time. There’s a reason the EDL phase has been nicknamed the “seven minutes of terror.”