Sunday, 5 August 2012

Curiosity about Mars

Within the next few hours, NASA's latest mission to Mars will either succeed gloriously or fail horribly, as the 900kg 'Curiosity' rover attempts to land on the red planet.

Missions to Mars have been notoriously difficult and it is a surprising fact that the Soviet Union, for all its success with missions to Venus, never successfully landed a functioning craft on Mars or its moons.  (Strictly speaking, Mars3 functioned for 20 seconds in 1971 before 'disappearing'.)  Even in recent years more missions seem to have failed than succeeded.  The British rover called Beagle was lost on landing, the Russian probe Phobos Grunt never left earth orbit, and crashed ignominiously back to earth.  Not many years ago an American Mars mission with a forgotten name was lost (allegedly) because different parts of the project were working in different units, (metres and feet).

Even as recently as 16th July, NASA revealed that it might have difficulty getting the Odyssey satellite into the best position to observe the landing of Curiosity, building the tension further by making Earth-bound observers wait a little longer for the news, good or bad.

However, the omens are improving, with NASA's two little rovers still exploring the surface of Mars.  Spirit and Opportunity have been notable successes, with the latter just passing 3000 Martian days (sols) of operation, covering 21 miles.

Even the results from Viking 1 and Viking 2 - exciting memories from the 1970s when space was still the final frontier - are being examined again to try to decide whether they show signs of microbial life.  What we would have given in 1976 to see images of the quality available free to all of us today!

Curiosity, nearing the surface.

Shortly the huge new rover, Curiosity, will descend to the surface, as you can see on the almost incredible video feature on Sunday Selection 3.

Curiosity's final descent

Hopefully the final stage of the descent involves being lowered on cables by a rocket powered mother ship.

One thing is more or less certain.  Curiosity will reach the Martian surface.

We can only hope that it will reach it intact and that it will last as long as its recent predecessors.

Morning update:  It made it successfully!

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