The Union Recorder

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July 1, 2014

OUR SPACE: Happy anniversaries

MILLEDGEVILLE — This week there will be lots of cake at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Not that the people there need a reason to celebrate - their many successes in robotic space exploration are reason enough to have cake every day!  Most of the milestones being commemorated there would mean little to most of us here, on the opposite side of the country, but there are a few that should prompt us to bake our own cakes and party away!

First up — I’m thinking red velvet cake. Oh yes, with whipped cream cheese frosting and dark chocolate shavings on top! The perfect cake for our tough pal Curiosity, the rover that’s been exploring Mars for a year now.

Remember the terrifying minutes of its descent through the thin Martian atmosphere, the deployment of the helicopter-like sky crane and the flawless execution of the landing — all done completely unaided by its human developers? Because of the long time it takes a radio signal to travel from Mars to Earth the spacecraft had to do everything on its own, and we had to trust the science and engineering and the spacecraft’s onboard computers to get it right and not end up in a smoldering billion-dollar wreck.

And it performed admirably, not only coming in for the perfect textbook landing, but also arriving in exactly the spot it was supposed to. Wow, what a celebration that was!

Since then Curiosity has done some amazing science on its way to Mount Sharp, its ultimate destination. It has blasted thousands of rocks and vaporized some of their surface to analyze the resulting emissions for material composition. It has scooped up drilling samples and worked them over in its onboard laboratories. Traveling at a snail’s pace but always working and exploring it has discovered proof that Mars once was a much wetter place, with shallow oceans and water flows.

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