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.
Gosh this is exciting. But with all of the funding to support STEM education, I'm wondering where to find all of the excitement surrounding this ongoing mission to Mars. I was too young to make any observations during the Apollo missions. Maybe instead of complaining about Beyonce and Adele, folks like me were complaining about all of the attention our culture was showering over The Beatles and Elvis while we were flying to the moon...
Good point, Bill. I, too, am wondering where the accompanying excitement has gone. As Louis points out, these are amazing feats of engineering. Maybe we need to send modern day counterparts of John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard up there to generate some excitement.
You may be onto something, Chuck. We still have astronauts on the International Space Station and the Shuttle program is not very ancient history. The recent jump by Felix Baumgartner got lots of press and coverage, especially through the social networks and even spawned a meme or two. Perhaps it was Red Bull's marketing and promotion that was key. I believe it was comedian Robert Klein that said he admired Neil Armstrong's restraint when his boot first touched the moon. Klein would have been tempted to shout "Coca-Cola!". Maybe we need a little more commercial sponsorship of space.
Excellent points Chuck. But perhaps waxing nostalgic of the old Apollo days and personalities is a good example of how we only tend to remember the good stuff. Only the first Apollo mission was of any cultural importance. The rest of the program was mind bogglingly brave and amazing, but largely un-noticed. Only the luck (both bad and good) of Apollo 13 made anyone take notice again after the first landing. We are jaded as a society, and to be blunt, the heroes in the Apollo program just made it look easy and normal (it was anything but).
Now, there is nothing left of the news media (it's all entertainment). Our national leaders aren't leading. Public schools are not making the grade. Science and Engineering are hard curriculums in college and under-rewarded in industry (compared to the business degrees) and seen by the public as, well, boring and nerdy. Ironically, it's Engineering and Science that have given us EVERYTHING (our standard of living, our safety in a dangerous world, our ability to eat well and live so long).
It's not like this in other countries, and we will soon be surpassed by those in the world that are raising the next generation to invent and capitalize on technology, not just use it.
Sorry for the rant, but we do need to figure this out. Personally, stories like this still give me goose bumps.
No apologies necessary, 3drob. I agree with your "rant." Good points, all. By the way, I wasn't waxing nostalgic for the old days -- I was waxing nostalgic for the really old days. Those were the names of Mercury astronauts, who came before Gemini astronauts, who came before Apollo.
Thanks Chuck. I grew up with Apollo. It became just another everyday thing for Americans. But manned flight (including Apollo: Grissom, White, Chaffee) wasn't without risk and loss. You are correct, that without a face to give it something we can connect to, sending robots into space just isn't inspiring in the same way. Perhaps a debate for another article (but apropos considering our American post-manned flight era).
I'm lucky enough to have seen Skylab launch on a Saturn V from probably 10+ miles away. I can still feel it in my chest. There were a huge number of people camped out to see it. If my luck holds out I'll see another launch this Tuesday. I'm curious to see if a launch is still a large public draw.
I was in first grade when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Somehow, I managed to get an 8x10 color photograph of the seven Challenger astronauts, which I kept on my bedroom wall long into my teenage years. In retrospect, it probably influenced my eventual decision to pursue failure analysis and prevention as a career.
Both before and after the Challenger accident, I followed the U.S. and Soviet space programs the way some kids followed sports teams. All kinds of exciting things were happening in space exploration. Just a week before the explosion, I had been at the VLA in New Mexico, where my dad worked, watching the first images of Uranus beamed back by the Voyager 2 probe. A couple months later, an armada of Soviet, European, and Japanese space probes observed Halley's comet at close range. Meanwhile, I closely followed the U.S. efforts to return the space shuttle to flight, which culminated in the successful launch of the space shuttle Discovery two years later.
Just as many, if not more, exciting things are happening today. The Curiosity rover is making incredible discoveries on the surface of Mars, the International Space Station will be getting a new crew later this month, the Cassini-Huygens probe is exploring the moons of Saturn, and the New Horizons probe is on its way to Pluto.
Why isn't there more public excitement about space exploration today? What can we do to foster this kind of excitement?
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.
@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.
For the question about why isn't there more excitement about the rover doing this mining research, I can point to two things that I see. First, none of those responsible for this incredible design made a very big deal about how complex it is, or about how much effort was required. So the technologicly illiterate population assume that it was no harder than their cell phones and smart phones. The second reason is that a huge portion of the population is not able to focus their attention on it long enough to even grasp what is going on. I observe this daily, that many, or even most, of the somewhat younger generations are simply not trained to focus attention on anything for more than a second or two. And how in the world can a person understand something as complex as collecting a sample core from a rock if they are not able to pay attention for more than two seconds? Just look around and you will see what I am talking about.
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.
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.
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.
@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.
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.
Completely agree that more needs to be done to create value that links money spent on these kinds of programs, and results which justrify the investments. We know that the focus on science and engineering is important, but we need to get back to the successes that these programs produced in the past.
I agree, Al. I wonder how much overblown media coverage has made us all a bit jaded, and perhaps contributed to the lack of enthusiasm. For instance, the press managed to turn "finds conditions once suited for ancient life on Mars" into "finds evidence of ancient life on Mars" or even "finds life on Mars". Argh! That's not NASA PR--that's media distortion.
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