Would you like an advance look at next month's news? Here it is: NASA's Mars rover, dubbed “Curiosity,” is due to land on the red planet on Aug. 5. You've heard of getting probed by aliens? Well, this time around, we're the aliens, and Curiosity is the probe. Take that, you Martians!
Curiosity is pretty much an off-road vehicle that digs in the dirt and does scientific stuff. Part of that stuff involves sniffing for signs of life. Of the several probes that have landed on Mars, Curiosity might have the best shot at finding any little living critters, or perhaps evidence of the dearly departed.
This is just one angle of today's boom in astronomy. Indeed, much of the “some day" material they were talking about when I was in school is now getting written into texts. For example, in recent years they've already tallied hundreds of planets outside of our solar system.
And that distant planet stuff, along with the nearby Mars stuff, leads to the inevitable speculation about extraterrestrial life, be it humble microbes or advanced civilizations. Some such interest is science. And some is populism. After all, the notion of LGM (Little Green Men) has captured the fancy of the mass mind ever since I've been around, just as notions of monsters and strange beings have long pre-dated the concept of space. So if public interest in UFOs and LGM keeps funding NASA's work in physics and related fields, then I'm all for it.
Even if Curiosity merely comes up with the humblest of Little Green Microbes it will be the stuff of giant headlines. One scenario is that it finds some microbes that are hangers-on from the era when Mars was awash with water.
Meanwhile, whatever it finds or doesn't find, Curiosity itself holds the promise of being a historic accomplishment. It's one that is riding the coattails of other ingenious exploits. If you're old enough to remember disco you might recall the first Mars rover, called Viking, which landed on Mars in 1976. I still remember the first photos sent back by Viking, they were all over the newspapers and magazines.
Back then I thought: Wow, Mars!
Today I think: Wow, Mars!
Yeah, some things never change. I'm still awed by the Viking accomplishment. Heck, you don't even need an interest in astronomy to be smitten by the engineering behind the gig.
While I'm on the subject, I'll note yet another inspiring mission: The Voyager I spacecraft, launched in 1977, is still going strong and is now the first man-made object to reach the edge of the solar system. It's going to keep on truckin' and should be sending back data from interstellar space. No, it doesn't hold the drama of LGM headlines, but it takes various measurements of interest to scientists.
Speaking of measurements, most of us would define “eternity” as the time it takes to fly from Los Angeles to Narita. Well, Curiosity trumps us on that count, as it enters the home-stretch of a 352-million mile, nine-month voyage.
That's long by people standards, but just a blink of an eye in the cosmos. Our nearest star (besides the sun) is about 25 trillion miles away. All these zeros make my head swim, and you engineers can double-check me on this, but I come up with about 53,000 years to cover that distance if nine months to Mars is the benchmark speed. So you'd better make your peace with this solar system, my friends, because it's a long drive to the next joint.
Mars might seem like cozy turf, being situated here in our friendly solar system, but Mars is not a nice place. It manages to gobble up many of the craft sent its way. Hence the term “Mars curse" and the long, spooky list of missions that have veered into oblivion.
Therefore, it's not a foregone conclusion that Curiosity will even survive its approach and touchdown. I've posted a link on my website that takes you to a 5-minute video that describes the challenges of the landing phase. It's wild stuff.
If you'd like to follow the drama I've also posed a link to NASA's countdown clock. As I write these words we're 32 days, seven hours, 41 minutes, and 18 seconds from touchdown.
Will it survive the landing? Will everything work? And if it does, what will it find? This is a true nail-biter. Stay tuned.
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Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.