The Union Recorder

Columns

July 31, 2012

Seven Minutes of Terror

MILLEDGEVILLE — In less than a week the Curiosity rover will land on Mars.

If you can stay awake until about 1:30am on Tuesday morning, August 6, you can follow this nail-biter on NASA TV and online. The Mars Odyssey orbiter has been repositioned to be able to relay the landing data back to Earth. Now it’s all or nothing for Curiosity!

I will most certainly be among those who will wish everyone involved with the mission good luck and nerves of steel – they’ll need both! Mind you, there is great confidence in good engineering, but nothing out there is failure-proof, and there are so many things that could go wrong with this landing, which sounds straight out of some fantasy novel.

Curiosity is the biggest rover NASA has ever sent to Mars – about three times the size of Spirit or Opportunity – so the bunch-of-balloons bouncy-ball landing simply won’t work. It’s far bigger and heavier and carries more gear and more science instruments than you can shake a stick at!

In simplest terms, Curiosity is a mobile chemistry lab. Its main focus is to obtain and analyze samples of Martian soil and rocks to determine if the environment of the Red Planet was ever conducive to life. Granted, life occurs on Earth in the most inhospitable of environments – in boiling hot eternally dark waters near deep-sea vents, in hot springs so corrosive they would strip the flesh right off your bones, in solid ice miles below the surface, even in the core of nuclear reactors you can find so-called extremophiles, life forms adapted to the nastiest habitats imaginable. So, lest I forget to mention it: Curiosity isn’t looking for life or fossils – it’s looking for chemical environments.

And while we are well aware of the existence of extremophiles we also know that these tiny life forms have adapted to these extreme living conditions but didn’t develop there.

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