The Summer Olympics are in full bloom — the center of the world’s attention. Yet, over at NASA, scientists and engineers are glued to monitors that provide crucial data about a new mission on the verge of landing on Mars — a mission that will look for signs of extra-terrestrial life on our red neighbor.
Sound familiar? It should. The year is 1976: The Gong Show and leisure suits are all the rage. Those Olympics are being held in Montreal, Canada, and the mission that landed while the athletes competed… well, it was called Viking 1 (its sibling craft, Viking 2, made it safely to Mars a few weeks later).
Jump ahead to 2012. The Games are in London now. And NASA, for the first time in 36 years, is sending a mission to Mars explicitly to search for life. Or to search for the chemical building blocks that indicate life, as some back-pedaling agency spokespeople prefer to say (trying to reduce the public’s expectations ahead of time).
Either way, Curiosity is the most expensive ($2.5 billion) and ambitious mission to another planet ever. Just how dangerous and complex is it? Check out this fast-paced NASA video about the Curiosity rover’s seven minutes of terror as it enters the thin, alien atmosphere. Historically, the success rate for craft attempting to land on Mars is about one third (counting all missions from every nation).
NASA themselves still have a high batting average on Martian landings. Yet, no one is resting on their laurels (remember the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander anyone?). According to NASA’s John M. Grunsfeld, a lead scientist and former astronaut:
“[Curiosity is] the most important NASA mission of the decade. There is no doubt that this is a risky mission, and that is coming from a human-spacecraft guy.
It’s hard to get something this big and complex to the surface of Mars, and then to get it to start roving. Thousands of people around the world working on it will be feeling their lives are riding on the mission landing successfully. We’ll all know soon if the risk was worth it.”
Yes, we will know soon enough — this weekend, on Sunday night, August 5th. If you want to get in on the action, there are a number of choices.
• Broadcasts on NASA TV with live chat begin in the late evening (in the United States) at 8:30 PM Pacific Time. They will continue into early hours of Monday, so plan for an extra cup of java if you’re heading to work on Monday morning.
• You can get the news straight from the horse’s mouth, as granddad used to say. The Curiosity rover itself will be live-tweeting its entire landing process — from entry to decent. Follow the one-ton rolling science laboratory @MarsCuriosity. Or, if you prefer your news source to be earthly, then check out JPL’s mission control updates @NASAJPL.
• Or, you can get real social with NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Landing event page at Facebook. Besides watching the live broadcast, you can share photos of your own late-night festivities.
If you’re still not sure that anyone should actually be this excited about a huge robot plummeting to the surface of Mars, maybe Captain Kirk can convince you otherwise. Below is a brief pitch with William Shatner explaining the mission in a nutshell. Keep your fingers crossed, if Curiosity lands safely, the rover will be doing valuable science until at least the end of the decade.
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