A Bold Step Towards Man on Mars: NASA’s triumph of landing the Curiosity rover on Mars is a testament to human ingenuity
‘Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, to risk failure, than to live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.’
This slight paraphrasing of Theodore Roosevelt at the NASA press conference on Sunday night would have sounded honourable if the Mars Science Laboratory, dubbed Curiosity, had failed like so many Mars missions before it. Fewer than half of all missions successfully reach the Red Planet in working order.
But Curiosity had just landed successfully on target and on schedule, sending back its first images - of its own wheel and its own shadow - within minutes. An event well worth getting out of bed before 6am (UK time) to watch - albeit via the internet, as UK broadcasters didn’t deem it worthy of live coverage. In my Edinburgh Fringe flat, an admittedly technophile crowd was almost as jubilant as the NASA engineers we were watching.
NASA has every right to celebrate. They’ve put a one-ton mobile lab on a planet so far away that communications travelling at light speed take 13.8 minutes to reach us. So by the time Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory got the first signals that things were going according to plan, what was dubbed the ‘seven minutes of terror’ - from when Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere to its landing on the surface - were long over.
Because of the long time lag - up to 20 minutes, depending on the relative orbits of Earth and Mars - any robot exploring Mars needs a degree of autonomy. Curiosity, the size of a small car, is equipped with multiple cameras and guidance systems enabling it to tackle the rocky Martian landscape without a human driver. Teams of scientists and engineers on Earth will receive one Martian day’s - or sol’s - results via one of the three spacecraft currently orbiting Mars, and be able to plan the next sol’s work, beaming orders for Curiosity across millions of miles.