Seven Minutes of Terror
No this is not about taking your teen out to drive for the first time; the title for this week’s column is also the title of the best movie made this year. On Monday, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will try and successfully land the Universes first chemistry lab on Mars. The Curiosity Rover started its journey to the red planet on November 26, 2011, and will endure 7 minutes of the most intense landing sequence ever known. Those of us who grew up with the Apollo missions, found that a capsule just has to hit the ocean, and the Shuttle missions were dangerous, as witnessed by the loss of two Shuttles and crew, could land as a supersonic glider. But nothing is the same on Mars.
NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were small rovers whose main experiment was to see if we could crash land a robot using giant air bags. They both survived the landing and started moving and broadcasting the most important images and data we have ever had on an extraterrestrial body that we didn’t land people on. They found evidence of water, of geologic activity and intriguing areas where we could look for the evidence of life. They had machinery on board to grind away a layer of rock and do analysis of the minerals beneath. But they were limited (hey remember we just wanted to crash them on the planet, everything else is a bonus) due to size. They just didn’t have the room to take larger and more complex robots along in them. Now Moore’s law states that every two years we double the number of transistors on an integrated circuit, so every new generation of rovers/robots should be better.
The biggest problem of the twin rovers was sunlight. Both were solar powered and had to shut down during the Martian winter and dust storms as well as when the weak Sun set. Curiosity will be powered by a small nuclear battery, allowing it to function without regard to the Sun or wind and can keep the experiments heated and no large “wings” of solar cells so it is more compact. This allows for more experimental modules. And they are out of this world.
Curiosity has one main job: to find evidence of past life on the Martian surface. Mars has water, and that is the main ingredient for life. Mars had a lot of water, and probably a water vapor atmosphere at one time, and Curiosity will look for evidence of that, as well as evidence for microbial life in the Martian soil. Curiosity has ten different experiments. My favorite has to do with the past holiday we had. Fireworks are evidence that electrons jump when we energize them (with black powder in the case of fireworks). Curiosity has no explosives on it (awww, I just lost all the 14 year old boys), but wait! It has a laser cannon! (They’re back) This laser can blast the surface of a rock and as the molecules vaporize, a spectrophotometer [spek-troh-foh-tom-i-ter] will read the electron emission and tell exactly what the rock is made of. It will look at things like elements necessary for life. SPONCH is the acronym I teach. It stands for sulfur, phosphorus, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen. The letters are also in reverse order of amounts found in life on Earth; more hydrogen than carbon etc.
It will do this with an x-ray diffraction and fluorescence scope to find out what the Martian soil is made of. It also has some cool optics. The arm contains a microscope to see the formation of minerals, evidence of water, evidence of ice and a close up of the granules. In fact it can image things smaller than the width of a human hair. Plus it can focus on items out past the arm; the arm can then look into crevasses or other structures that the cart may get stuck in (like Spirit, it fell into a crater and was lost). More importantly, it can look for evidence of microbial life, like concretions and chalk deposits and other structures made by microscopic animals.
A mast mounted high resolution visual camera will be able to film, store and analyze video of the Martian landscape. It will also help analyze the laser cannon ablation. The cannon can fire and the data can be picked up by the camera almost 3 meters away. (Take that Dr. No!)
The landing will be broadcast on Discovery channel, on line and if you have an XBox Connect, you can down load a free Lander game. The game is out now and free for download at the Microsoft Marketplace. It requires the Xbox 360 console and Kinect controller to play.Watch the movie, play the game and eat the sandwich! But a sandwich named Curiosity might not sell too well.