Monday, August 6, 2012

Martian Cake

Last night, the new Mars Rover Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on Mars. If you stayed up to watch the live feed from the JPL command center, you know just how underwhelming that simple sentence is. It was a stunning triumph crowning nearly 9 years of intense work (8 years leading to launch, 8 months of travel from Earth to Mars).

If you missed it, you can see the video, along with information about NASA's other space projects, on http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html. Many news outlets have pulled and posted the video of the landing. A nine minute version is up on NASA's Youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnG-rFFpP8A It's worth watching more than once. Take a look at how tense and nervous those scientists and engineers are. Count how many of them burst into tears when the signal comes back that Curiosity landed perfectly.

I did, too, along with a number of people who admitted it on Twitter.

Speaking of which, Twitter went NUTS on the #MSL tag. The traffic is still intense this morning as everyone waits for more information from Curiosity. Though, from what I understand, we're in a 12 hour communication black out window at the moment. If you want a glimpse at the first photo Curiosity sent back after landing, look here: http://www.spaceflight101.com/msl-mission-updates-3.html (Not embedding photos I don't own into the blog - many of NASA's photos are free for use - but I'm not clear on these photos yet. We may need media release forms from any Martians captured in the image. Joking on that last one.) On NASA's news page, you can see a second photo from Curiosity, amid a collection of a few other snapshots. http://www.nasa.gov/news/index.html The one of Curiosity's shadow is my favorite, for no particular reason.

In the midst of watching the live feed last night, I realized that the last live feed I'd watched from NASA had to have been one of the Apollo landings. The space shuttle launches were timed in such a way that I couldn't watch them live because of school schedules and possibly because our school lacked either the motivation or the money for the students to watch in real time.

I so look forward to what Curiosity will tell us about Mars. Will Curiosity find stromatolites - fossilized algae mats - proving that the Red Planet did ONCE support life? Or will Curiosity hit the jackpot and find actual microbial life hiding in the Martian soil? Apparently, NASA's trying really hard not to hope for that. During a morning briefing, the panelists were quick to point out that Curiosity is a mobile chemistry lab. They have a nonstop list of experiments lined up for the rover, but 'finding actual life' isn't on their checklist.

Wouldn't it just be the icing on the Curiosity cake, though?

Why does this matter to me? Besides the fact that I'm a hopeless nerd, you mean? It's true. Finding out something we as a race didn't know until the moment it's revealed lights up my simple brain. On some level, it feels a little like an explosion inside, as if I've been forever changed by a piece of data. I guess that's true on a larger level, too. Every time humans learn something new, the entire race is changed. While individuals may remain ignorant, the body of knowledge available to humankind if expanded. Are we, on some level, expanded too?

It matters because every single thing that Curiosity tells us about Mars is fodder for another science fiction story, another flight of imagination fueled by an amazing feat of science and engineering. Last night's landing was an extraordinary treat.

Thanks, NASA.

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