The Mars Science Lab

To all,

Before we begin, I am sorry for my extended absence, but here we are and we must continue. I don’t have work on the wind tunnel to report just yet, but I do have some discussion of interesting science. To begin, here is a quote from Robert Wilson speaking at a congressional committee defending the funding of a very expensive particle accelerator:

“It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

I believe this serves as an appropriate introduction to quite an expensive experiment. A little over a week ago, the Mars Science Laboratory launched for one of our neighboring planets…you guessed it, Mars. JPL provided a great animation (not actual video) of its travel, entry into the martian atmosphere, landing, and operation. I am so struck by the audacity of the mission! (Follow the Link)

Mars Rover animation

Three aspects really strike me as incredible: entering the atmosphere, touchdown of the rover, and communications.

Though I know fairly little about this topic, I am amazed by its entrance to the atmosphere because the marian atmosphere is so much thinner than ours. The vehicle must come in at a much shallower angle, requiring a lot higher accuracy in the approach. From leaving Earth, the trajectory must be planned so that it approaches Mars, a moving planet, at the right spot as to not smash into the surface or not slow down properly. Undoubtedly, there can be course adjustments on the way, but it is still incredible.

I was most shocked by the way the scientists chose to get the rover on the ground. The chosen method is to use rockets to slow the decent and hover over the surface of the planet. The rover will then be lowered by a tether to the ground. This is similar to the Apollo missions, but it can’t be done by a pilot. Depending on the planets’ positions, it takes between 4 and 20 minutes for light to travel between Earth and Mars, and therefore the time for signals. This is far too long for people to fly the vehicle remotely…It Must Be Automated! Undoubtedly, it was someone’s very challenging project to write software which controls and corrects the vehicles descent with rockets!

The last aspect which particularly grabbed my attention, was how it communicated with us folk on Earth. I was thrilled when the rover sent signals to a satellite orbiting Mars, which then passed them on to Earth. We don’t just have an isolated rover on Mars, but we have a system in place, working cooperatively to study the planet. That is exciting.

I hope you all are as thrilled as I am. Some of these aspects may have been done similarly before, whether in previous rovers or other missions, but I am thrilled for how our scientists are pushing the envelope and our progress in space travel.

Bon Voyage,
Ben Washington