Curiosity Rover: $2.5 billion gamble?
In case you've been living under a moon rock for the past few months, NASA's newest rover, Curiosity, will be touching down on the surface of Mars' Gale Crater at 05:31 UTC on August 6, 2012 in one way or another. Although this mission could represent the single most important event in the history of planetary exploration, most of the attention is being drawn to the fact that this event represents a $2.5 billion gamble.
Aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society commented that if this mission fails, "not only do you lose this mission, but I think we lose the rest of the decade. On the other hand, if this succeeds, it will be a brilliant mission, it will be the best Mars mission ever flown and I think we have a real chance of not only reversing the missions that were cut but moving on towards sample return."
Why is it such a big deal? Not only is this the most difficult robotic mission ever cunducted but "MSL holds the potential to look for evidence of habitable environments, if they existed, on Mars in the distant past," said NASA science chief John Grunsfeld, "The Curiosity rover has the potential to discover the building blocks of life on Mars, if life ever existed on Mars."
So here's where we run into the hot topic. Essentially, everyone is on board with the fact that this is the beefiest rover ever and that it will conduct scientific breakthrough-type work, but the trouble, as any gymnast will tell you, is sticking the landing. The landing process for the Curiosity is... well... it's complicated, to put it lightly. It's a $2.5 Billion dollar coin flip when you consider that that a car sized robot will be flung through 3,800 degree entry temperatures, 15G deceleration, experience a 65k pound yank from a parachute at supersonic speed, dropped by a rocket powered decent stage for about a mile, slowed from 200mph to about 1.7 by 4 of its 8 rockets and finally lowered gently onto a pin point landing position by a computer controlled landing crane mechanism via a 25ft tether, like that scene in mission impossible. It almost seems as though they took the idea straight out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Here, let me show you.
Just listen to the scientists talk about the landing process in this video and you will see just how perfect everything needs to be for this mission to succeed.
Let's put the hype aside for a moment. Regardless of whether or not this project succeeds, it is significant in that it represents the willingness to take a risk for towards the goal of better understanding of ourselves by understanding our universe. I'm sure they have done their research over at NASA and I have confidence in their ability to accomplish this task. Many people, hours and dollars went into this mission and in the end we will have learned something important... I just hope that something isn't how to crash a 2.5 billion dollar robot into the face of another planet.
What do you think? Brilliant? Risky? Brisky?
To celebrate this little science project, Bill Nye the Science Guy will be throwing a party is Pasadena Ca., along with a slew of other space peeps, to honor the monumental event. Come hang out and celebrate science and space! Check out planetfest.org for more info. Make sure you purchase your tickets in advance before they sell out!
Celebrate Curiosity: A Party on Mars
Saturday, August 4th 5pm - 12am
Paseo Colorado (across the street from the Pasadena Convention Center)
Celebrate the raw energy of planetary exploration in action with Bill Nye and over 1000 of your fellow explorers, friends, party-goers, celebrities, scientists, artists, and space enthusiasts at a Martian party!
If you can't make the party, don't fret. I'll be there doing my best to tweet and socialize in your name. Follow me/us on twitter for live updates at www.twitter.com/glxp. Check out our Facebook for pictures! www.facebook.com/googlelunarxprize
Don't forget! You can always watch the livestream of the Curiosity landing via NASAtv. Check out their page for more info.
Just for giggles I asked the community what some of Curiosity's first tweets might be:
@LeoZombie: "Looks like I'm the first to arrive at the party. #typicalNASA"
@noctem9: "Where's the nearest restroom?"
@SWGlassPit: "Why won't Spirit answer my calls?"
Robert: "Just landed on Mars. Where is everybody? #homesick"
Diego: "Curiosity just checked into Mars on Foursquare"