Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Parking a rover on a Martian mountain.

To great fanfare, a Nasa probe about the size of a small hatchback, has landed on the planet Mars, and will be shuffling about for the next couple of years looking for signs of life. I have had a similar experience in Holyhead.

Billions of years ago, so science insists, there was water present on the red planet, so this mission is to ascertain if there was anything around to drink it. Our heroic hatchback will therefore be on sightseeing and soil sampling detail, and like any self respecting tourist on a daytrip to Margate, the Curiosity Rover will send back copious holiday snaps, and spend a large part of its time digging.  

The journey to Mars is a bottom-numbing 570 million kilometres, but at least with unmanned space-flight you can cut out the toilet breaks. The final daring descent to the planet’s surface is the most critical phase, affectionately dubbed “seven minutes of terror”. As the radio signals take around 14 minutes to travel back to Earth, the good folk at Nasa had to wait, like agonised expectant parents, to see if Curiosity could touchdown in tact, or become a rather pricey jigsaw puzzle.

As it was, the number cruncher’s calculations were correct. The probe pierced the planet’s atmosphere at 13,000 mph before decelerating rapidly using a canny combination of parachute and retrorockets, which proved effective, but more expensive that my wife thumping an imaginary brake pedal with her size fives and screaming. The landing manoeuvre was then completed by the “Sky Crane” lowering the rover safely to the surface on nylon ropes.

The good news was greeted on the ground with gleeful delirium. For many, the mission was nearly ten years in the making, and the relief was palpable in an outpouring of emotion seldom seen in those with more letters after their names than in them, even American ones.  

But this is a modern mission by any means. Curiosity, like any gal about the galaxy, has her own Twitter feed, and when settled into her new surroundings, she tweeted: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!”

Sadly, Gale has so far declined to comment.

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