NASA recently announced that the Mars rover Curiosity had collected the first sample from the interior of a rock on another planet. This in itself is a feat of engineering.
Being an unmanned, interplanetary mission, there are no opportunities to have an astronaut go out and repair the rover when there is a problem. The rover is also not controllable from a console here on earth, like a drone, since there is an appreciable communication delay. To control these long-range robots, a program must be uploaded and then activated. The amount of testing and the number of contingencies that must be accounted for is very large.
Curiosity shows us the first sample from the inside of a rock of another planet. (Source: NASA)
Now that the sample has been collected, it will be moved to a device that will sieve it and send particles to two instruments, Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin), and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). The sieve will allow particles up to 150 microns across. The analysis will take some time to complete, but we will be waiting with bated breath as these rocks were judged to have a potentially interesting history, being of a sedimentary type. This might indicate the presence of water, and is a core area of investigation for the mission.
The results of the analysis should be very interesting and we will keep you up to date. The results will also guide the Curiosity science team in choosing the next target rock.
@naperlou: I also think that space plays a different role in the public imagination than it did in the 1960s or even in the 1980s. I remember Star Trek IV, SpaceCamp, Flight of the Navigator, and other films that presented an overwhelmingly positive and optimistic vision of space travel. Star Trek, in particular, was a huge inspiration to me. More recent movies (even including the more recent Star Trek films) tend to present a darker, grittier, and less kid-friendly view of space.
@ Dave P, I too have been fascinated by the space program since I saw Armstrong walk on the moon live on television. I became consumed by everything space related fro the age of 4 into adulthood, so I think inspiration should begin as early as possible. Also, it would help immensely if schools taught children how to think, not what to think.
Dave, a lot of the excitement in the early days of space exploraiton had to do with the fact that it was totally new. There was also a cold war aspect. It was competition with the Soviets. I agree with you that there is a lot of interesting stuff going on now. Perhaps part of it is that it is not really percieved as new, and part is that there are lots of other applications of technology. Of course a part of it is that NASA is not so good at promoting itself as it was, in my opinion.
Thanks for a reminder about how the term "rocket science" started. Although I've been told by people in the know that "Even rocket science isn't rocket science," meaning it's not nearly as complex as some of the technologies it's compared to in phrases using that term. I also seek the satisfaction of doing things well, although I can't see that as selfish. I think that's a value associated with certain generations, although I helped instill it in my nephew while helping to raise him. I'm just happy to have it.
@William K.: I agree with some of your points, but I couldn't disagree more with the idea that the best days of the space program are behind us. We have people living in orbit on the International Space Station. We have two robots exploring the surface of Mars (Curiosity and Opportunity, which was designed for a 90 day mission but has laster 7 years), not to mention several probes orbiting Mars and sending back high quality images. We're exploring the moons of Saturn, and there's a probe on the way to Pluto. Meanwhile, we're discovering planets orbiting other stars, using telescopes that are located in space. Oh yeah, and by the way, we can communicate nearly instantaneously with nearly anybody nearly anywhere on earth, thanks in part to orbital satellites. What's changed since the 1960s is the level of public excitement. But it's not due to any lack of exciting things taking place.
Yes, Ann, of course it is partly that there are not the sort of programs today, as well. And the involvement in that area is part of what gave us the term "Rocket Science", which now mostly folks claim that something is not "rocket science". What could we find currently that would be capable of inspiring such dedication? As I look at the various companies, I see very few that evenattempt to inspire serious loyalty. Most of them have two primary goals, which are maximize the return for the investors, and maximize income for the top level. Neither of those targets inspire me to do much better. In my case though, it was more selfish in that I am seeking the satisfaction of doing things very well. That does tend to drive a number of folks crazy sometimes.
Ann, sometime go into one of the museums that has on display one of the actual space capsules, almost of any generation, and take a careful look at all of the individual pieces and parts. Then consider that not only did every one of those thousands of parts need to ferform perfectly by itself, but that also all of those parts and pieces had to work perfectly togather. And that they did work that way. Next, consider the effort in making the parts of an ordinary machine function "adequately" most of the time. That comparison certainly points out to an engineer how amazing the succes of our space program really is, and the level of effort that went into it. My feeling is that presently there are far fewer with that amount of dedication to complete such an undertaking again.
I think William's comment is right on. It makes me realize how little I've seen, anyway, about what really goes into the design. I've done some looking here and there, but what's available seems either very high-level (NASA), or more detailed, but only about the part one particular company played, like from Honeybee Robotics.
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