Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why is it so tough to get to Mars?




Its mission will be to survey Mars and determine how hospitable the planet really is for life, be it past, present, or future.  Among the rover's numerous capabilities are the MastCam (Mast Camera) that will provide supposedly the most spectacular photos of the Martian surface that we have seen to date; the ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera) that will fire a laser to vaporize rocks from 30 feet away (how flippin' cool is that?!?) and then scan the resultant material; an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer that will allow Curiosity to make definitive analyses of Martian soil; and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) mounted on a robot arm that will allow scientists back on Earth to get microscopic images of soil and rock.

As impressive as all of this is there remains an undercurrent of apprehension online about the mission.  After all, Mars does have something of a track record of jinxing or destroying space probes altogether.  Just earlier this month, the Russians launch their own Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt.  Due to a malfunction, that probe now remains in low-Earth orbit, on its way to becoming the 19th straight Russian Mars probe to have failed.  It's not just the Russians.  Mars space missions from the United States have met their share of disaster as well.
We've also had tremendous success in the form of the Viking landers, rovers such as Spirit and Opportunity, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  So what makes the difference?
On Space.com, JPL's Richard Cook said, "I'm not sure Mars is harder on average than other places.  We've been there a lot, or relatively a lot, so we have maybe enough statistics to talk about it."  Not that anyone's asking, but I would have to agree.  Despite what Mars conspiracy theorists might conjecture, our failures in reaching the Red Planet probably have much more to do with the inherent rigors of spaceflight than with any odd aura about Mars.  

Nevertheless, NASA is going to be under tremendous pressure to get Curiosity on to the surface.  Weighing in at about the size and weight of a Mini Cooper, this is the largest probe of its kind to ever go to Mars.  The sheer physics of that is fraught with its own complications.  Then there are those pesky unknowns.  Both the "known unknowns" and the "unknown unknowns" to quote Donald Rumsfield.  Engineers at NASA will undoubtedly face these issues as they arise on nearly every mission.

What bothers me more than any chance of mission failure are the online comments I've been reading for the news coverage of Curiosity, including those that I've linked above.  Truly procrustean thought at its highest.  "This is a waste of tax dollars."  Yes, I'm certain that knowledge is wasted on minds that hold that viewpoint.  Perhaps the money should have been spent on another Megachurch?  "How will this help create jobs?"  Right.  Because the Curiosity project created no jobs for scientists, engineers, technicians, and laborers.  
I am hoping that the Curiosity mission will be a brilliant success for many reasons.  Not the least of them is that I can't wait any longer to get off of this planet.

Now playing: The Smiths, "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"



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