[Video Link] This Sunday night (and through the wee hours of Monday morning), engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA will attempt to land the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity on the surface of Mars. If the daring and complex landing plan goes right, Curiosity will enter the red planet's atmosphere, slow its descent by releasing a parachute, then lower itself to the surface on a tether with the help of a 'sky crane.' In this report for the PBS NewsHour, space journalist Miles O'Brien previews the highly anticipated space event. Read the full transcript here, and view video or download MP3 audio here.
Around that same time, I spoke with Ashwin Vasavada, Deputy Project Scientist at JPL for the MSL mission, to understand more about how MSL works and what its creators hope to accomplish, how one scores a job designing interplanetary explorer robots, and how this updated Mars rover is (or is not) like an iPad.
NASA's newest rover Curiosity, is zipping through space, slated to enter the Martian atmosphere early morning eastern time on Monday, August 6. (Image: NASA)
At the PBS NewsHour site, space journalist Miles O'Brien recounts the history of human exploration of the red planet, leading up to this Sunday's planned landing by the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. It's gonna be a nail-biter. Snip:
Ralph Harvey is a professor of planetary minerals at Case University. He spends a lot of time looking for Mars meteors in Antarctica. He has not yet seen anything that says "life" to him:
"When we argue about signs of possible life on Mars it's always the most subtle thing you can imagine," he told me a few years ago. "Something at the very edge of measurability, and life did not proceed that way on earth. Life is in your face. Life is something we have to scrape off the rocks to get to the story of the rocks. And I don't see that on Mars. I don't have that sense about Mars. So life on Mars is going to have to get in my face for me to believe it."
But what if life on Mars is hiding deep beneath the surface -- say in an underground aquifer? Could there be an underground habitable zone on Mars today?
NASA JPL's nuclear-powered Curiosity rover will try to land at the foot of a 3-mile-high mountain on Mars this Sunday night (technically, early Monday morning) to learn more about the possible building blocks of life there.
The rover is about the size of a car. The whole project costs about $2.5 billion. As you can see from JPL's now-viral "Seven Minutes of Terror" video, the landing process is something of a Rube Goldberg scheme. It'll be amazing if this works. It'll really suck for JPL, and the immediate future of space exploration funding, if it doesn't.
JPL Climatologist Bill Patzert, on the current wildfire outbreak in the Western United States, and the role of climate change: "What's really changed in recent years is that there are more and more people building and living at the urban/wildland interface, so the human impact is greater every time these great fires erupt (...) Looking to the future, the uncertainties of human-influenced climate change will play a stronger and stronger role, and rewrite our fiery history." More here.
The event, themed "Great Journeys," will feature a life-size model of Curiosity, the
rover currently bound for Mars aboard NASA/JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft;
demonstrations from numerous other space missions; JPL’s machine shop, where robotic
spacecraft parts are built; and the Microdevices Lab, where engineers and scientists use tiny
technology to revolutionize space exploration.
JPL Open House includes hands-on activities and opportunities to talk with scientists and
engineers. For the first time ever, cell phone users, using text-message capabilities, will be
able to take part in a mobile scavenger hunt. “The Voyage” scavenger hunt participants can
search for secret capsules hidden across JPL and unlock secret codes.