Life on Mars: A round-up of Curiosity-related awesomeness

They were chanting "Science! Science! Science!" and "NASA! NASA! NASA!" in Times Square last night, as the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars at about 1:30 am Eastern time.

The best parts are yet to come. As chemistry professor and blogger Matthew Hartings pointed out this morning, Curiosity is, fundamentally, a chemistry project. Curiosity will search for the chemical building blocks of life, it will study the make-up of the soil and atmosphere, it will look at planetary water cycles and the effects of cosmic radiation. The long-range goal, as you've probably picked up by now, is to put human beings on Mars—maybe by as soon as the 2030s. Curiosity is the chemistry that will help make that very ambitious sort of awesome possible.

We'll be staying tuned for cool stuff coming in from Curiosity. In the meantime, I wanted to point you toward some swell videos, photos, jokes, and essays that have turned up in the last nine hours.

First off, if you slept through the event or just want to relive the excitement, the video above captures the five minutes before and five minutes after Curiosity made landing. The actual touchdown happens about at about mark 5:30, and the first images come through at 7:30.

And, speaking of images ...

This teeny shot shows Curiosity and its trusty parachute landing on the Martian surface.

The Curiosity rover Twitter account posted this photo of the Martian surface (plus a wheel) last night.

Time magazine's Keith Wagstaff was in Times Square, reporting as the small, jaded, underwhelmed crowd slowly grew in both size and enthusiasm.

At 11:30pm EDT, when NASA started broadcasting coverage of the event, the crowd was thin and slightly underwhelmed. Many complained to me that the Toshiba Vision screen, dwarfed by a blinding Dunkin’ Donuts advertisement below it, was hard to see and that the only audio provided was through a smartphone app that seemed to be running a minute behind the visuals.

“NASA is a passing thing,” said Ben Brittain, an otherwise enthusiastic 19-year-old computer science student from the Rochester Institute for Technology. “I’m pretty sure this is going to be the last big thing NASA does.”

As the night, cool and wet thanks to a passing thunderstorm, went on, people began trickling in from every direction. ... Finally, 1:30am hit. Times Square was packed. People looked up intently with buds in their ears, listening to the back-and-forth chatter of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles.

A cheer erupted. The rover’s first picture — a 256-pixel-by-256-pixel image of its own shadow against the Gale crater — was greeted with the hoots and applause normally reserved for winning touchdowns.

Philip Bump has a lovely essay over at Grist this morning, talking about the Olympics, Curiosity, human endeavor, and how very, very difficult it is to build something and have it work as perfectly as Curiosity did last night.

Jettisoning the carrier that moved it through open space, dropping its heat shield, then deploying a “sky crane” that would lay the car-sized rover on the surface of the planet before flying away. All of this had to happen in a seven minute window — without any contact with Earth.

It’s impossible to believe that it could work. That we could plan and build this nesting-doll piece of technology, launch it into space, land it in the spot we picked, and have it all still be working at the end. Fifty years ago, the idea of hitting Mars with anything, anywhere was pretty optimistic. One hundred years ago, leaving the atmosphere was an impossibility. But this was what we decided to do. Do the math, build it, throw it up there.

Meanwhile, on Earth, other bots were working less well as Scripps News Service managed to temporarily take down NASA's YouTube Curiosity footage via a spurious claim of copyright infringement. It's fixed now. But Motherboard's Alex Pasternack recorded the takedown notice for posterity.

YouTube’s system is also heavily biased in favor of claimants, and a system that is increasingly controlling of content that has serious educational or scientific value, or arguably falls under “fair use” provisions. Claims of fair use of video content are immaterial to the Content ID or DMCA takedown system. Creative remixes are easy targets, as are videos of teenagers singing Christmas songs. As I discovered last year, many of Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s speeches are no longer available on YouTube thanks to automatic and manual copyright claims by the owner of King’s speeches, the British music giant EMI Publishing. This despite the fact that YouTube is still a haven for illegal and uncontested uploads of millions of hours of Hollywood and music material.

And because anyone can claim a YouTube video belongs to them, YouTube’s system allows cheaters to direct traffic (and ad revenue) to their uploads. (Some preferred companies, like Universal Music Group, can even block videos immediately, without filing a claim.)

In less serious news, NASA's Mission Activity lead on the Curiosity landing, Bobak Ferdowsi, has literally become an overnight Internet celebrity thanks to his multi-colored mohawk. You can see fan art of Ferdowsi at The Atlantic, or buzz over to the Tumblr that has already been created in his honor.

Personally, I think Ferdowsi needs to tour America's schools, promoting the awesomeness of space alongside Space-X's rocket scientist/1970s vice cop Kevin Brogan.

And speaking of awesome scientists: Check out this profile of the guy who will be driving Curiosity around. CNN's Elizabeth Landau interviews Scott Maxwell, who also drove Spirit and Opportunity:

The baby, of course, is the SUV-sized Curiosity, coming to Mars after years of planning and preparation. It's been more than eight months since it left Earth, and no one can be sure exactly how it will behave, says Maxwell.

Over dinner in Old Pasadena this week, Maxwell and his girlfriend, Kim Lichtenberg—a planetary scientist also working on the rover mission—playfully compared it to having a child, though neither has had children.

"We're all going to be kind of like new parents," Lichtenberg says.

"Watch it take its first steps," Maxwell adds.

Finally, a few links:
See more of the first images sent back by Curiosity at Wired
Check out NASA's official Curiosity page
Watch all the pre-landing videos on NASA JPL's UStream site
Xeni was at JPL last night, live tweeting on the official BoingBoing feed



  1. “Bobak Ferdowsi, has literally become an overnight Internet celebrity”

    Fantastic.  That is just fantastic.  Yay science!

  2. “NASA is a passing thing,” said Ben Brittain, an otherwise enthusiastic 19-year-old computer science student from the Rochester Institute for Technology. “I’m pretty sure this is going to be the last big thing NASA does.”

    I’d like to invite Ben Brittain to go punch himself in the face… repeatedly.

    1. You know, I’ll just check the phone book and see if I can find the guy and get some enjoyment out of it myself…

      He’d probably have said the same thing when Neil got out back in ’69.

    2. I don’t want to pile up on the guy, since I can’t blame his cynicism, but the title “aspiring killjoy” came to mind. :) However, if NASA indeed persists it can serve as a continuing source of idealism for him. 

      1. Science-wise, given the current NASA funding profile, he’s not entirely wrong.  There are no missions funded for the next two Mars windows.  There’s JWST, without a doubt the next big thing, then there’s not a lot in the pipeline.

    3. Haha – as someone who went to the University of Rochester, everyone I met from RIT always seemed like a smug, cynical asshole to me :)

      1. How great is that phrase!

        “Rocket Powered Space Crane”

        This whole thing was designed to bring me back to being 12 years old.

        Also, per the discussion about comparison to the moon landing, while I am too young to remember those missions, I do remember staying up to see the first pictures back from the first Mars rover during the early days of the internet.  I think I recall watching on NASA TV and downloading pictures over a dial-up and thinking how amazing it was that I was receiving pictures from Mars on my computer.  I mean, think about that – we are literally receiving transmissions from mars on our laptops.  Funny how natural that seems today.

        1. Science creeps in so gently that we really don’t realise that we’re living in the future.

          I think that when hoverboards arrive it’ll finally click for everyone.

    1. All the other vehicles had much simpler landings, due to their smaller size. Curiousity is the size of a small car, so they had to design a super complex landing – parachute followed by retro rockets followed by a sky crane (sky crane!). No room for error, a paean to human design ingenuity, hence tons of wild applause.

    2. I was twelve when we landed on the moon, and while this wasn’t on par with that, it probably did come in second for science awesomeness.  You could say that the space shuttle should take that honor, but the launch of the first one made the list, but for the most part, there were no singular moments in that program that were as dramatic for me.  The cumulative accomplishments were impressive, but what made this mission and landing so unique was the sheer engineering chutzpah.  When I first heard the specific plans, I was astounded that they actually thought every one of the bits and pieces that could easily fail would all work, and that the sum total was achievable.  This lander is ten times as heavy, with fifteen times the payload, and what seems like twenty times the complexity.  Our whole family, with two teenage boys, watched this with fascination and awe, and we were not disappointed.

      As a side note, the list of prominent low moments includes the Challenger launch in the top spot.  As a fluke, I was watching that launch live, one of the few for me, and the singularity of despair, and the later knowledge of how many things they got wrong, made that moment stand out above all the rest for me.

    3. I’m older. Saw the 1st moon landing on a little B&W TV in the hall at my primary school in New Zealand. Remarkable. My feel was that NASA was a “passing thing”, though.

    4.  The first moon landing was a really huge event in my family, as my father was an astronomer who was involved in the Ranger project and the retro-reflector project.  but this landing was hyped as being very difficult, so it also was a big thing.

      I do have to say, they made it look easy.

    5. Older? Bite your tongue! I remember well, while this lacked the life or death drama of the Apollo missions it still was very exciting. I believe as well that more accurately many more probes have crashed than landed. 

    6. Curiosity has been deliberately designed as an initial step to a manned Mars mission by 2030. You were impressed by Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. Let yourself be impressed by the effort to keep that fire burning.

    7.  I can remember as a 7 year old going to a neighbor’s house to watch it. My dad had to take a picture of the tv screen with the polaroid. He still has that old snapshot.

    8. I watched the apollo 11 landing as a five year old but I can’t remember it now. Every landing is important to me but as technology improves I feel closer to the event and experience more emotion as a result. I watched this landing in a conference room at work (15;30 in Melbourne) with a bunch of other engineers. I couldn’t contain my emotions when the landing was reported. It was very special for me and I can’t wait to get the first good pictures of the landing site.

  3. I’m interested why there isn’t more footage of the actual landing.  I know that Mars is pretty far away, but given technology like Hubble etc. are there not ways to capture it?  That one shot with the parachute is awesome, are there not more?  Is it because of the location the rover landed in relation to our viewpoint from earth?

    1. Pony up a couple of billion dollars budget, and they’ll send two next time – one for Science, and one for Hollywood.

      (Prediction – Hollywood executes a perfect landing, then spends four years transmitting flawless superHD 3D footage of the smoking crater left by Science…)

    2. The view point was from a satellite that is orbiting mars, it made a pass at that moment. 

      There aren’t so many shots of the landing because the point is getting the scientific payload on the ground to use and not so much to document the decent. The EDL team watched the stream of data and got a way more vivid picture in their mind than any live stream could tell them. Now they are taking their time to get things set up right and do, you know. science. 

      But here is something you might enjoy:

      4fps thumnails from Curiosity’s POV from the heatshield separation to the touchdown. They have better quality images stored on Curiosity that will get sent back at some point when they have the bandwidth to spare, but first… SCIENCE! (and housekeeping)

    3. Curiosity has a descent imager which made a video of the landing. It is likely that those images have not been sent to Earth yet. The video is important to put the landing site in context.

  4. We can land a car-sized rover on Mars, but we still can differentiate between “…it’s trusty parachute…” and “…its trusty parachute…”. Humanity = FAIL!

    1. I can assure you, I do know the difference between “it’s” and “its”. Yet, this does not stop me from typing it wrong on a semi-regular basis. I suppose we could still call that humanity fail, but it’s a failure of a different sort. 

  5. Nathan – take a look at a Google Earth picture of your house. Take a look at your car – it’s about the same size as Curiosity. Now, the Google Earth pictures are usually taken from LEO – a few hundred miles away. Mars is currently about 154M miles away, let’s say 500,000X as far away. Resolution decreases according to the inverse square law, so you’d need 250,000,000,000 X more resolution on a camera on a satellite in Earth orbit to get the same resolution picture of Curiosity, on Mars, as you’d get from that same Earth satellite of your car, on Earth. The picture of Curiosity shown here was taken by the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, which is orbiting Mars at a couple of hundred miles up, and so can get you the same resolution picture of Mars as a comparable Earth satellite could get you of Earth.

    1.  By the way, the average Earth-Moon distance is 239,000 miles, or roughly 1000X the distance from LEO to the surface – so an Earth-orbit surface imagery satellite would have 1/1,000,000 of the resolution of the Moon’s surface as it has of the Earth’s surface.

  6.  I don’t think Maggie was involved in the design, launch, or landing of Curiosity. Also, she is awesome and this is a minor error.

  7. I’m excited with the whole thing, and although impressed with the landing, I’m not quite “proud” with the solution. I find beauty in simplicity, and believe overly complicated systems show off some lazynes as opposed to brilliance.

    Still, this is all fucking awesome.

  8. “They were chanting “Science! Science! Science!” and “NASA! NASA! NASA!” in Times Square last night, as the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars at about 1:30 am Eastern time.”

    Chanting “NASA” makes a lot more sense to me than chanting “Science!” in so far I think science is always something that people do – either brilliantly, or competently, or poorly, as the case may be, and for noble, or beneficial, or deleterious, objectives, as the case my be.  I don’t think you can really think of it as a neutral, Platonic entity – it’s a human activity, however it might take larger than human things as its subject, and I’d personally prefer to celebrate the particular people that do it well and for good purposes, rather than the thing in itself, which would be pretty indifferent to the kudos anyway.

    At any rate, if I’d won a gold medal or something like that, I’d be really bummed out to come home to a crowd chanting SPORT!  SPORT!  SPORT!

    1. I agree with you, but just want to reiterate that science is a methodology SOME people utilize.
      Remember this?
      “Texas Republicans call for an end to critical thinking in schools” 

      It’s amazing what the scientific method allows us to accomplish.  When that method is discarded, which it frequently is, we get disastrous results such as nonsensical economic policies, links between vaccines and autism, the medicinal benefit of hexagonal water, faith healing, snake oil, etc…

      I would be proudly chanting science, which implies adulation towards those who practice it well in my mind.

      1. Yes, I take your point.  I wonder can the scientific method be applied to economics as unambiguously as to the other things you’ve mentioned?  One of the major problems I see with economics is where it is treated almost as though it is were a precise natural science, and some of  its specific theories as though they were invariant natural laws, which obviously has disastrous consequences.  I suspect economics probably needs an awareness of how it differs from the natural sciences as much as anything else.

        Anyway, I agree with you, but I think it  is precisely the power of science that necessitates an awareness that the scientific method is not by itself an almighty panacea – that the human agency that wields it will always define how praise-worthy or disastrous its application is in the real world.

        Christ, I’m starting to sound like a pontificating alien in an Atomic era b-movie!

  9. NASA is a true demonstration of how the US Government funds science and innovation which allows the US to grow.  Private enterprise would never fund this if there wasn’t a direct shareholder profit.  In fact it was a great risk which requires high investment to try the ideas. It provides national pride, focuses us on what we can do together and proves that our common destiny is greater than our individual gain.  This idea MUST be stamped out!

  10. What a truly fantastic achievement. This is what makes me simply proud to be an American and a Californian. 
    To all those that think the American Government can’t do great things, may I say “In your face with outer space”

  11. So in order to put human beings on Mars for no particular reason, we’re killing off the part of the space program that created Curiosity — 20% budget cut next year, more cuts in coming years, with money shifted to manned space efforts, but not nearly enough to design a new vehicle. How to fuck up everything at once in one easy lesson.

  12. I need some help understanding something. If the mission really is to discover evidence of life on Mars, why land in an impact crater? It seems to me that any time something hits a planet hard enough to create a 96 mile wide crater would destroy any evidence of organic chemistry.
    I don’t want to get all tin foil hat here, but selecting an impact crater as the area to search for life seems like a guaranteed way of not finding it.

    1. Chesapeake Bay is an impact crater, and I understand they get good crab cakes out of it.

      The landing site was chosen because it’s on an alluvial fan — i.e., a now-dry river delta. The crater came first; the river (and potential life) came later. Otherwise, the impact would’ve obliterated evidence of the river.

      1. Chesapeake Bay was back filled by the ocean post impact. A living ocean at that. Gale crater was most likely back filled post impact by wind and sand. There is still allot of debate concerning the river sediment theories.

        1. I’m sure there’s a lot of debate about every aspect of areology, but the working theory is that Curiosity landed on an alluvial fan that formed when a river spilled out from between the mountains of the crater rim, and that Mount Sharp is a sedimentary bluff. That may turn out to be wrong, but that’s why the site was chosen — better to land on what might once have been a river bed or lake than another random spot with no evidence of flowing water, and near a mountain that may have been formed by sediment deposition. I think the scientists who chose the site would disagree with your assertion that the crater was “most likely back filled post impact by wind and sand”, and would say that it was probably filled with sediment from a flowing river — or at least that that was a good bet — but I don’t know for sure. Happily, we now have a rover there to find out for us.

          To again answer your initial question, the crater is very very old, and predates any likely fluvial or biological activity. It’s just a ring of mountains now. It’s a bit like asking, “Why would anyone look for life on Hawaii? It’s a volcano!”

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