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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Curiosity: The Rover

"The top of the atmosphere down to the surface... it takes us seven minutes. It takes fourteen minutes or so for the signal from the spacecraft to make it to earth - that's how far Mars is away from us. So when we first get word that we've touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle has been alive or dead on the surface for at least seven minutes."

- Adam Steltzner, EDL Engineer



By now, we all know that the new Mars Rover, Curiosity, is safely on the surface of the Red Planet. But I think it is worth taking a minute to marvel at the complexity of simply getting something the size of a small car successfully onto the surface of Mars.

It begins with a launch vehicle to get the massive payload off the earth's surface and into a trajectory to intersect with a planet over 350 million miles away. It continues with getting the probe into orbit and then, most amazing of all, landing something this big as gently as you might have your car lowered to the service shop floor after an oil change. And the kicker in all this: it has to be done automatically with no intervention from earth. The distances involved are just too large to have any real-time control.

NASA and Cal-Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the nerve center for this adventure. They produced a wonderful simulation video of what was involved in getting Curiosity onto the surface.  You can watch it here:





Why spend a billion dollars to put a one-ton rover on the surface of Mars? The name says it all - Curiosity. When we stop being curious, we stop living. We stop being the best we can be as humans.  Curiosity is going to bring us many more surprises in the coming weeks and months.  The payback will be worth the money.

So here's to the engineers!  Let's take a moment to stop and think about what they just did.  Simply amazing!

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