[David Strom's Web Informant] August 12, 2012: Life on Mars

David Strom david at strom.com
Sun Aug 12 07:53:24 EDT 2012

Web Informant, August 12, 2012: Life on Mars

Are you as Mars-obsessed as I have been in the past week or so? Maybe
I shouldn't have started things off by watching the original Total
Recall movie starring Arnold in all of his campy best. The current
remake doesn't even take place on Mars, which is truer to the original
Philip K. Dick short story. And the more that I have been learning
about the JPL rover Curiosity, the more I want to know. It is almost
as if I once had a memory implant like the characters in the movie.

Certainly, the successful landing of Curiosity is something for all
geeks to celebrate. It is an amazing achievement of science and
engineering, and kudos to the many men and women that have played a
role in getting us to the Martian surface once again. One look at the
record of attempts and you can see that the Russians haven't done so
well as the Americans. It is another space race in the making. You
might remember that the Mars Climate Orbiter failed when engineers
mistook metric system measurements in their calculations. The probe
burnt up on its too-fast descent.

To get a better feeling about how many different moving pieces it took
for this mission, watch this NASA video called Seven Minutes of
Terror. NASA really knows how to put together a great story.

The problem is that the landing had to happen completely under
computer control, because Mars is so far away that the human mission
controllers couldn't do much in real time. It takes radio signals
about 14 minutes to reach Mars, and the landing sequence is about half
that time. During those seven minutes, the spacecraft is transformed
several times as bits and pieces do their jobs and are then discarded.
If you have ever seen the original Saturn V rocket that powered us to
go to the moon and compared its huge mass with the tiny capsule that
actually delivered the three astronauts back home, you get the idea.

Curiosity had to deploy the largest supersonic parachute but that
wasn't enough to slow it down in the thin Martian atmosphere. It also
needed a special rocket braking maneuver, and then was lowered gently
to the surface with a series of cables. All of this gear had to work,
and about half a million lines of computer code too. And did I mention
the two orbiting communications satellites that are part of the total
package? Curiosity needed those to enable the data and pictures from
Curiosity to reach us back here on earth.

Curiosity is Plutonium powered, rather than solar panels. The previous
Mars rovers had solar panels but because Mars is so dusty the panels
wouldn't collect much energy over time. Plus, Curiosity is about the
size and weight of a small car, which makes it more power-hungry.

And of course the coda to Curiosity can be found with one of its
mission controllers, Bobak Ferdowsi, who became an Internet meme after
the landing. Thanks to an odd Mohawk, a great Twitter ID
(@tweetsoutloud) and a heavy female fan base, he now has his place in
history as the modern-day replacement for Gene Kranz' white vest.

Now all we need is an updated replacement for Tang.

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