Bon voyage Curiosity, daughter of Mars Science Laboratory, the big wheeled bruiser of a rover that NASA hopes to get off the ground Saturday. The aim is to land next August in ancient, gnarly Gale Crater not far south of the planet's equator. It is about 100 miles (154 km) across. Its midsection sports a pile of debris about as high as the Andes. The pic shows just part of the crater's complex terrain, gathered from orbit by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter and its THEMIS imaging system. Grist has a link to the whole eye boggling gallery. The jumbled edifice, it appears, is a bit of a geologic mystery other than that an impact made it early in Mars's history, sediments buried it, and erosion has slowly re-exposed it. Maybe it happened repeatedly. Water was involved. Perhaps the $2.5 billion rover will find stratigraphic and mineralogical evidence that makes legible whatever sagas have unfolded there, maybe including signs of extended wet times suitable for life to evolve and thrive.
With Russia's Mars-Phobos sampling mission stuck ignominiously in low-Earth orbit, due for spectacular burn-up in a month or two, one hopes the cosmic ghoul of bad luck will let Curiosity go.
News outlets are giving the mission plenty of advance coverage. Angles include 1) the mission's scientific potential, 2) the endless budget wars and tribulations, particularly intense these days, that leave uncertain whether this will be the last NASA big-ticket planetary probe for years to come, and 3) to a smaller extent the once-hotly-controversial radioisotope thermal generator that is to free Curiosity of dependence on solar power.
Starting with the last first, it is notable that the press release from Rocketdyne, a space power and rocket engine manufacturer with hq in Sacramento, California (link in Grist below), boasts of its RTG on board but says nothing about the nearly 11 pounds of plutonium oxide (not the isotope used in fission chain reaction atom bombs) whose decay heat drives the device. Maybe the company is spooked by past, public protests over putting radioactive materials on space probes that are launched from our home planet and as Phobos-Grunt illustrates might come right back down. But some reporters are not shy about writing the full facts of it. Some say the interesting thing is that, this time, it has attracted little public outcry. The Tracker finds that satisfying. Maybe the world has gotten so scary for statistically sound reasons that the remote chance a launch accident can sprinkle some plutonium from the sky (despite being packed in an almost completely crash-resistant casing) no longer rises high on worry lists.
Stories on the atomic battery, Pu included:
- Florida Today - Don Walker: Plutonium protests can't draw a crowd ; One reason offered here - launch comes during the Black Friday etc. post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy. The piece quotes, unchallenged, a few of the remaining worry worts.
- Wired Science - Adam Mann: Nuclear Battery Will Warm Giant Rover on Frigid Mars Treks ; Overall, a reassuring piece.
- Space.com - Denise Chow: Mars Mission May Be Curtain Call for Plutonium-Powered Spacecraft ; Remarkable story. I'd forgotten all about this. The isotope has to be made in reactors and purified with equipment built for the nuclear weapons industry. All are shut down. Here's a two-yr-old AP story by Seth Borenstein with more.
- Christian Science Monitor - Pete Spotts: Mars rover gets 'engine' upgrade: Curiosity fueled by nuclear power ; Good general background, gets around to the disappearance of fresh Pu-238 from the larder.
- NYTimes (Green blog) Matthew L. Wald: The Competition Between Solar and Nuclear Energy Moves to Mars ; Features an aside on one aspect of the Pu-238 shortage that catches interest. If a more efficient, if complicated, reciprocating motor called a Stirling engine harnesses the heat's energy, it would take a lot less radioisotope from the same power.
- Space.com - Clara Moscowitz: After 7 years of development, Mars rover ready to launch; See also Mike Wall: NASA to Launch Mars Rover 'Dream Machine' This Week ;
- NYTimes - Kenneth Chang: On Mars Rover, Tools to Plumb a Methane Mystery ; Interesting - Chang spends almost as much attention on instruments that are not aboard the craft, such as ones designed expressly to detect microbial activity or even to sequence alien DNA from red planet dirt, as on ones that mission workers did install.
- Forbes - Alex Knapp: Next Mars Rover Is Prepared For Launch ;
- Virginian-Pilot - Diane Tennant: Mars landing will cap work of NASA Langley researchers ; Nice to see an old-fashioned,modest-sized local paper with a local angle space story, done cleanly by an old-fashioned savvy newspaper science beat writer (not that she is old-fashioned, but such jobs are getting to be triggers for nostalgia).
- Houston Chronicle - Eric Berger: Bigger, better rover could launch to Mars this week ;
- Florida Today via Clarksville TN online - Steven Siceloff : NASA's Mars Rober Well-Equpped for Studies ;
- Universe Today - Ken Kremer: Science-rich Gale Crater and NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover in Glorious 3-D / Touchdown in a Habitable Zone ; You'll need your handy red and blue stereoptical translating spectacles, ie 3-D glasses, old school style, to see the pic with this. It's worth digging them out.
- ... lots more. After the US Thanksgiving day break,one hopes we'll have some stories on a successful launch for updating this post.
Grist for the Mill:
Arizona State U. Mars Odyssey/Themis Gale Crater's History Book ; Hamilton Sundstrand Rocketdyne Press Release on Curiosity's power ; JPL NASA Mars Rover Press Release, JPL NASA Mars Science Lab project page ; Mars Science Lab Newsroom ;
Barely Pertinent Phobos-GRUNT news:
- AP - Vladimir Isachenkov, Melissa Eddy: Signal received from Russia's Mars moon probe ; The European Space Agency's engineers get clever, pretend the probe worked, and sent a signal of the sort it'd receive while part way there. It perked up. No word if this alters the final outcome, but hope flickers.
- Charlie Petit