Pre-Ramble: Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, James Bond, Buzz Lightyear, Professor Gadget … step aside! After eight years of planning, eight months of interplanetary travel, and “7 minutes of terror,” NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory plunged through Mars’ atmosphere, fired up a rocket-powered platform and lowered a car-sized, 1-ton robotic rover – curiously named “Curiosity” – onto a big crater.
“Even the engineers who drew up the unprecedented plan for the landing admitted that it looked crazy. But the plan actually worked.”
Bam!! On entry, the spacecraft topped speeds of 13,200 mph, jettisoned a couple of solid-tungsten weights, fired a bunch of thrusters, deployed a parachute and engaged a rocket-powered sky-crane … all in a heroic, pull-out-the-stops, uber-sci-fi attempt to slow the hot mess down and place it ever-so-gently on the surface of Mars.
The Mars mission’s main goal is “to assess whether the Red Planet is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life” … and eleven fascinating science instruments are on board to help advance knowledge around this stuff (note the very tech-y names and/or acronyms assigned to the instrumentation … you just know that some group of scientists had way too much fun with this … and that there were super-soakers in the room):
- Mast Camera (MastCam) – main imaging tool; captures high-resolution color pictures and video of the Martian landscape
- Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – high-powered magnifying glass, allowing Earthbound scientists to get up-close looks at Martian rocks and soil
- Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) – recorded video of rover’s descent to the Martian surface providing data for future attempts
- Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) – suite of three instruments – mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph and laser spectrometer (sweet!) – that will search for carbon-containing compounds (building blocks of life as we know it on Earth) and also hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen
- Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) – identifies different types and quantities of minerals on Mars
- Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) – shoots a laser at Martian rocks from up to 30 feet away and analyzes the composition of the vaporized bits (way cool)
- Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) – measures “abundance” of various chemical elements in Martian rocks and dirt
- Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) – searches for ice and water-logged minerals beneath the Martian surface
- Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) – “toaster-size” instrument measures and identifies high-energy radiation to assess potential levels of exposure
- Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) – Martian weather station, measuring atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction, air temperature, ground temperature and ultraviolet radiation
- MSL Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI) – provides performance data on rover’s heat shield for future spacecraft design
The Take-Away: Congratulations, NASA and Hello, new Martain neighbors! … We come in peace, and promise to keep up the lawn.