Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make . . . strange beings who landed in New Jersey tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from Mars. – Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds
THE TABLES, it seems, have been turned.
A generation of Star Trek and Star Wars movies has perhaps made us blasé about space travel. We are so used to talk of warp factor nine, transporters, and ripples in the space-time continuum that we can lose sight of the extraordinary achievement of a “simple” moon shot. Let alone landing a one-ton car-like “rover” on Mars after an eight-month voyage, an entry to the thin Martian atmosphere at 21,243 km/h, a parachute descent, and a rocket-assisted soft landing that touched the rover down at a gentle 2.4 km/h. The equivalent bump to driving a car off a kerb.
The plutonium-powered mobile lab, with a 10-year lifespan, will embark soon on a rambling exploration of the bottom of the dusty 150-square-kilometre impact bowl called Gale Crater where it landed, and of a nearby towering mound of rock three miles high, Mount Sharp. Already dramatic images sent back of the vast gravelly landscape are mesmerising scientists – each takes a total of 14 seconds at the speed of light to reach Earth.
From an engineering perspective, Nasa’s giant achievement on Monday, as the New York Times put it, was “the second slam-dunk of the summer”, equivalent to the vindication of those who built the Large Hadron Collider at Cern and found the Higgs boson. The project, the most challenging and elaborate in the history of robotic spaceflight and now, after a few hiccups, costed at $2.5 billion, is a crucial showcase for the US space agency beset by budget cuts and the recent cancellation of its space shuttle programme.
The rover’s apt name, Curiosity, might indeed be a wry two-fingered admonition by the organisation to those for whom the value of science is only measured in commercial return (“No Starship Enterprise this!”).
Curiosity’s mission is predominantly geological and chemical: an examination of the planet’s rock and soil surface involving the rover’s 10-on-board experiments to look for carbon-based molecules – media spin: the search for ex- or potential life on Mars (albeit at a more basic level than the longed-for little green men). One experiment, a laser gun can zap a rock from 7 metres to create a spark whose spectral image can be analysed by a special telescope to discern its chemical make-up.
If Curiosity finds Elvis, that’ll be a real bonus.