Curiosity Mars Rover: Our Interplanery Emissary
This tale of two Worlds unites Earth and Mars across a cosmic divide of over 350 million miles...
"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark."
- Carl Sagan, 1990
We are truly living in exciting times. Events like the recent successful landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars are historic triumphs for both science and mankind, representing our species' finest attributes of an enduring spirit for exploration and a great, soaring passion for knowledge.
I've been hooked by all the developments from Curiosity ever since watching this video about the "Seven Minutes of Terror", where the rover loses communication with its operators during atmospheric entry and must complete a flawless automated landing sequence, following meticulously coded software commands and a breathtaking array of technical wizardry.
Personally speaking, the most compelling images from the surface of Mars are not ones which look "alien", as such, but the views which portray landscapes familiar to what we see here on Earth. When you look at the rover panoramas and find scenes akin to arid rocky regions of our own planet, it seems to underscore our place in the cosmos and reify these distant words which have been hitherto seen only as ethereal specks of light through the lenses of telescopes.
During development and pre-launch testing, NASA's interplanetary vehicles are often put through their paces in rocky desert areas such as Nevada, Arizona and Chile, as the geology of these regions matches the sort of extraterrestrial terrain the robot will be encountering on its far-flung travels. I looked into my archives and found a photograph of the Arizona desert (seen here on the left hand side, taken when approaching the New Mexico border) which was not unlike some of the pictures that Curiosity has been sending back from its new home in Gale Crater.
The right half of this composite is a genuine shot from the surface of Mars which the rover captured on August 8th, 2011. I have montaged NASA's CGI rendering of the initial parachute deceleration and rocket-powered descent stage in order to better illustrate the landing.
The graphic of the actual rover is courtesy of Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its original version can be found online here. Thanks also go to Canadian Astronomy for their shot of Curiosity's launch, taken whilst the vehicle escaped orbit by riding 285,000 pounds of of thrust aboard an Atlas 5 rocket in November 2011.
Scientists are reportedly interested by the mountainous walls of the ancient impact crater in which Curiosity now resides. Here, a diverse network of valleys is believed to have formed by water erosion that once cascaded down into Gale Crater from the surrounding plateau. This is the first view that we have ever have seen of a fluvial system - one relating to a river or stream - from the surface of Mars.
Known and studied since the 1970s Viking missions, these geological patterns date from a period in Martian history when water flowed freely across the surface. The very same mechanism of fluvial action can be observed in my Arizona photograph. Our world is inconceivably different to its neighbours in many ways (here most notably in the abundance of animal and plant life) but we are all subject to the universal laws of physics which carve and texture the surfaces of planets. These foreign lands, in their magnificent desolation, are now islands on which we make our stand amid the great enveloping cosmic dark.
Earthbound evolution spanning hundreds of millions of years has left mankind ill-equipped to deal with the harsh conditions of space. The challenge of sending humans across astronomical distances is immense; almost insurmountable, but the story of space is one of triumph over adversity. JFK famously chose to lead his people to the moon "not because it is easy, but because it is hard." Perhaps, someday, human footsteps will eventually follow in the chevron tyre tracks of our latest robotic pioneers like Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity to experience the Red Planet first hand.
Eagle-eyed readers may spot occasional phrases from the works of Carl Sagan in some of my science writing. They are not intended to be plagiaristic, it's merely an homage to the poetic expressions of a man who had a rare knack for communicating his passion and wonder at the universe, and mankind's context in the cosmos. Read or watch an extract called "The Pale Blue Dot" and you'll see what I mean.