History shall be made Sunday night by NASA, as they attempt to land the Mars Rover Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Unlike Spirit and Opportunity, the previous Rovers to have made this mission, Curiosity is the size of an SUV, and carries a lot of instruments to check for the presence of water on the surface of Mars, as well as to run experiments to determine if there used to be carbon-based lifeforms on the surface of Mars several billion years ago. You can geek out on the specs here.
NASA has made this otherwise super-nerdy event into an amazing spectacle, producing a video that is as gripping as a trailer for a summer blockbuster. It is fascinating to hear about the “seven minutes of terror” – it takes 14 minutes for light to reach the Earth from Mars, and it takes 7 minutes for Curiosity to enter the Martian atmosphere and touch the surface. So by the time we get word of what happened, she (oh, it’s a she – check her Twitter account!) would already have been on the ground, dead or alive, for 7 minutes. The landing sequence itself seems crazy and straight out of some science fiction movie, replete with a Mission Impossible drop-by-wire of Curiosity at the last stage. Unlike the video though, reality is bound to be much more boring and incremental, assuming all goes well and Curiosity lands safely. It would take upto 48 hours to get color images back from the Martian surface. Its amazing how much technical expertise goes into instrumenting and perfecting an expedition such as this – even to reduce the ellipse within which she is predicted to land.
Which is why it saddens me to read that a lot might be riding on the success of this mission. While we have trillions to bail out banks and pay out hundreds of millions in bonuses to the leaders that orchestrated their collapse, budgets for expeditions like the Mars Rover are being cut drastically. It takes the pursuit of the unknown to push the frontiers of science, mathematics, philosophy … why, existence itself. And in today’s world, most of the frontiers that can be reached easily have already been reached. While we have the likes of Elon Musk transforming the way we might travel to the moon tomorrow, we need both Governmental and private benefactors to ensure that initiatives like this are fully supported. Which is where one has to applaud Yuri Milner for setting up the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation that just announced $3 million each in awards to 9 physicists. Even the Millennium Prize Problem awards were just $1 million.
Here’s wishing all the best to Curiosity and hoping that she weathers any dust storms Sunday night gracefully. The weather at the landing site is expected to be dry skies and calm winds with a slight chance of dust, which is heartening. I even chanced upon a fellow brown brother in many of the news articles – way to go, man! Keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best for the landing!