Monday, August 06, 2012

Curiosity rover and excitement at NASA

I just spent two hours by watching NASA TV that covered the landing of the Curiosity Rover, the cleverest part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), on Mars.

The landing maneuvers (those "7 minutes of terror": diagram) were unbelievably sophisticated (more than any other previous landing procedure); watch the video above (it looks like from a science-fiction movie, doesn't it?).

At some moment, the NASA folks in blue shirts became pretty much sure that things were fine; you could see their certainty on their faces. Of course, we didn't know whether their optimism was justified. But they're probably experts – and the probability seems to be supported by pretty impressive empirical data at this point – such that each of them really knew what was going on at each step and what the remaining risks were, too.

But nothing could replace the excitement we could see and share when the precise final reports about successful achievements of the system were communicated to the NASA headquarters; and especially the moment of the final landing. The ecstasy among the people was amazing. It had to be a strange feeling to know that nothing could be controlled in "real time". It took about 14 minutes (current distance here) for the electromagnetic radiation to get from Mars to Earth at that moment; 28 minutes for a round trip. So light (or any other influence allowed in Nature, because of special relativity) simply wasn't fast enough to influence those "7 minutes of terror".

Various folks including NASA administrator Charles Bolden and Obama's science adviser John Holdren gave some enthusiastic speeches. I was ready to instantly press "close the window" in the case that Holdren would mention "climate change" or anything of the sort but he was decent enough to avoid such extremely decadent acts so I am still watching NASA TV at this point. ;-)

The nationalist atmosphere was extremely different from the international atmosphere at the LHC. CERN loves to celebrate how much international it is; NASA never forgets to point out it is a U.S. project, funded by the U.S. taxpayers (lots of fun for $7 per American, indeed!), and America is the leader in all those curiosity-driven technological feats. The fact that almost all the rocket scientists are citizens of the same nation and they may have the same blue shirts adds another layer of motivation, I am sure. It would work in another nation, e.g. if the blue shirts were replaced by brown shirts, as well – but in the real world today, only America could realize such a Mars landing project, I think.

Although I may sometimes be infected by a nationalist or international propaganda, I always return to rational attitudes soon and I am simply neutral on whether it is more "cool" when similar achievements are done under the leadership of a single nation or in diverse international collaborations. Well, I still think it's more natural if those things are done by a single nation. Some degree of national pride and competition helps, too. The real reason why the LHC has to be such a heavily international project is that no single nation really had enough courage, expertise, resources, and curiosity lust to realize the project without the aid from others – and this explanation isn't a real reason for pride, is it?

And if it is the communication between people of different nations that should be celebrated, I certainly don't find it as impressive as the ability of humans in any nation or nations to send a one-ton vehicle to a different planet 14 light minutes away and perform all the maneuvers to decelerate from 10+ km/s to zero (well, to 75 cm/s vertically and 4 cm/s horizontally).

The Curiosity Rover is the first NASA Mars astrobiology project since the 1970s and just the fourth or fifth successful landing on the Red Planet after Pathfinder (whose Sojourner rover only worked for 2.5 months in 1997), Spirit (2004-2010), Opportunity (2004-present, the ultimate survivor), and perhaps the Phoenix lander in the Mars Scout Program (2008); Soviet Mars 2 and Mars 3 projects failed in 1971 while U.K./ESA's Beagle 2 was lost around Xmas 2003 and numerous other Mars expeditions have been doomed well before they approached Mars' surface. The prevailing Mars failures are due to the Martian Curse by the Galactic Ghoul, if you need to know the exact name of the culprit.

It would be cool if some stunning insights about life came out of the mission; however, I don't really expect this to happen. If Mars has some connections to life, it's probably in the future and we will have to help such a future to become reality.

MRO's leaked image of the parachuting Curiosity (MSL). Click for a bigger one.

NASA has continuously operated rovers on Mars for 8 years at this point; Curiosity should add at least 2 years according to the plan (it depends on no consumables or "resources"; for example, if you care about energy, it uses the MMRTG system by Boeing to get 100 Watts of energy via heat from decaying plutonium-238 whose half-life is 88 years: no solar panels) but people are secretly ready for a much longer time. These expectations have surely strengthened after NASA learned that all of Curiosity's engineering parameters are within the expected ranges: the device seems to be perfectly healthy right now.

So good luck, NASA's Curiosity as well the human curiosity, and congratulations to NASA, the U.S., and the homo sapiens species.


  1. Great post Lubos on this remarkable achievement by NASA. Not theoretical physics but engineering at its finest. Since the Pathfinder mission, in fact even since the Viking landers, NASA has not put one foot wrong in its exploration of Mars.

  2. Exactly, NASA has been fantastic at least on this front.

  3. The ChemCam instrument (acting as a geochemical observatory) is a French-US technology. Actually Sylvestre Maurice is the lead for the instrument. A lot of French and US scientists are working on it and interpret the data etc.,. :-)

  4. Watching the successful touchdown of the Mars Rover gives me the same
    warm fuzzy feeling I felt as a kid when Apollo landed on the moon. That
    was the America of my youth -- a country that valued the big reach,
    common sense solutions and engineering prowess.

    Now we've got sociopathic banksters and megalomaniac warmongers. No
    lessons were learned from Vietnam other than to better control the
    'message' by cooking up better lies and coming up with better ways to
    obfuscate the truth. We've allowed ourselves to become mindless and
    passive consumers of whatever corporate America dishes out to us. No
    longer are we mindful or self-motivated enough to act as citizens,
    willing to exercise our Constitutional rights and take responsibility
    for own personal actions.

    “Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know.” – Aldous Huxley

  5. As an American let me express my thanks to France for its role in this exciting adventure.

  6. Complaining about what is wrong is easy and cowardly. Actually doing something constructive requires courage and hard work. Shame on you.

    By the way, there are a lot of things right about this country. Your help is needed in making things better but I won't hold my breath.

  7. What a dichotomy! If only NASA had sent James Hansen along for the ride. But it would be unthinkable to contaminate Mars, wouldn't it?

  8. Cool, Shannon, sorry for having overlooked that contribution from France. But I haven't forgotten who gave the Yankees the Statue of Liberty. ;-)

  9. Cool, Shannon, sorry for having overlooked that contribution from France. But I haven't forgotten who gave the Yankees the Statue of Liberty. ;-) Look what the global warming has done to the statue...

  10. Dear Gene, I think that Mars would survive it and could even have a glorious future. Just recall what kind of criminals used to be sent to some of the former British colonies and they're fine. ;-)

    Hansen would be grateful, too. He says that the Earth is becoming another Venus and too warm and we need to revert it and get back to cooler temperatures. So I suppose it means back to Mars for him. :-)

  11. I think you found the nut of the thing. The over weaned urge of NASA to "look for life" on an endless succession of ice planets is the political component that restrains Holdren, and his ilk from overtly tub thumping the global warming. It's the blind alley they can pretend to look down, to appease the masses while they studiously ignore actual avenues of science.

    The grownups at NASA go along with it because they figure no matter where in space they look, under whatever pretext, the AGW is going to look like bad science.

    This very project was offered on a table as an alternative to going back to Titan, with it's ozone hole and lack of greenhouse effect.

  12. Congratulations to the US scientists and engineers!
    Of course, preparation is the key and no doubt every part of the system was meticulously tested before the missions was launched, which is why it's succeeded carrying out what looked impossible.
    The Beagle 2 mission wasn't a US project, but a British one carried out with the usual eccentric British enthusiasm in the form of professor Colin Pilinger. It failed because it had to be cheap and therefore generally untested.

  13. Perspicacious MartianAug 6, 2012, 7:04:00 PM

    I think you forgot the Phoenix lander. This makes 5 successful landings.

    And to Scooby, there were also a couple of failures not so long ago - one "disappeared" en route to Mars (fuel line failure as I recall) and one failed upon the landing attempt due to a software failure as I recall.

  14. Tx for your fix!

    Just like TRF normally gets a disproportionately high number of visits from Princeton, IAS, Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, CERN, Fermilab, MIT, and similar places, we had lots of visits today that looked like on on the screenshot attached below.

  15. Tx for the fix and extra views...

  16. Shannon,

    Many years ago, while my group in California was developing the first practical Gunn Effect oscillators, I found myself in competition with a group at RTC La Radiotechnique in France. All I can say is that those French scientists and engineers were damned good, fully equal to the best in the world. They certainly earned my respect.

  17. That's nice to hear Gene :)... A lot of our best scientists and engineers emigrate to the US for understandable financial reasons. It's good for Science but disappointing for France..

  18. LOL, we have the same bankers we have always had with the exact same proportion of mental defectives of every type. The only difference was the government used a combination of intimidation and bribery to get the banks to make bad loans in the misguided attempt to see that everyone could have a house regardless of the ability to pay for one. People respond to incentives and these incentives were geared to elicit exactly the response that they did. Even Clinton admitted what he did with the CRA was the heart of the problem.

    The government meddled in the market. What they did was the equivalent of walking into a casino and guaranteeing everyone against their losses while at the same time egging them on to take risks they would never have taken were their own money on the line. Normally if someone makes a bad bet then they lose their money and the problem is self-limiting. When the government backs all of the players you get a huge speculative bubble that expands far beyond what it otherwise could before it bursts. There was only one way such stupidity could end and we just saw it. Unfortunately we decided it all worked so well we would try it with health care next. Humans can be a bunch of stubborn bastards when it comes to breaking bad habits or acknowledging mistakes.

    The rest of what you said is equally unsophisticated and emotive but in deference to Lubos and not wanting to explore the fringes of human stupidity instead of celebrating exploring the fringes of human ability we can leave that for another day. Rube Goldberg himself couldn't have designed a more sophisticated landing system than the one we just saw in action.

  19. SteveBrooklineMAAug 7, 2012, 5:41:00 AM

    "People see these beautiful pictures from outer space and they're inclined to think that something amazing has been achieved, a spokesperson for the Higgs-boson team said. Let the Mars rover do something of genuine value, like, say, discover how the universe was created. Then I'll be impressed."

  20. Hi Steve, it is a parody article but quite realistic one - it could have happened. Still, I would count as one of those who think that both things are valuable and, to some extent, both things are science.

  21. Hm, I have no problem with the Americans being proud with this project. 2 billions of tax money that's not peanuts.

    What really annoyed me lately was the representation of the discovery of the Higgs at CERN by an American.

    Anyway, there should be no place for nationalism in the sciences.

    "Mathematics knows no races or geographic boundaries; for mathematics, the cultural world is one country." - David Hilbert -

  22. the bit about NASA having grownups, that was me being optimistic.
    If interplanetary space missions discover that the greenhouse theory is worthless sophist crap, but the discovery is buried behind a pay wall at Nature Magazine, will Socrates roll over in his grave?

  23. yeah Ben. Watching this thing I was wondering when the falling dominoes, and match striking Jack 'n' the Box would be deployed. :)

  24. And so we have Curiosity, boldly going where only Viking One, Viking Two, Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Phoenix have gone before.


  25. Meant to throw this in there.

  26. Many thanks to NASA and American taxpayers: you show to the world that no economical crisis may be used as a barrier to human curiosity!

  27. I, nor anyone else for that matter, can make things better until our
    self-licking ice cream cone of a war against drugs and terror is put to
    an end, and until all of our war criminals and financial fraudsters are
    put behind bars. Things would also improve a lot if our president is
    stripped of his power to order the extrajudicial killing or
    extrajudicial torturing of anyone whom he personally deems a terrorist.
    If that can't be done, then our president should be tried and prosecuted
    as a terrorist for using taxpayer dollars to secretly arm al-Qaeda
    jihadists against the sovereign nations of Libya and Syria.

    And if you don't already know, Gene, Obama is so pumped full of
    hubris he feels he can murder and announce his crime to the world. Since
    when is the decision to murder someone merely suspected of a crime "an
    easy one?" ( see link below). For the Ted Bundys and John Gacys of this
    world, such a decision may be easy--even pleasurable--but the President
    of the United States? He's bragging about murdering defenseless people,
    for heaven's sake! Is he ready to be judge and jury and executioner here
    at home when our circumstances worsen? It would seem so, because if he
    wasn't a cold-blooded killer before he took office, he has certainly
    turned into one.

  28. You’ve got it all backwards, Ben. The problem isn’t that the government
    runs the banks. The problem is that the banks have grown so powerful
    that they now run the government.

    You fail to see that what we currently have is a kleptocracy.
    People, such as yourself, continue to engage in the fiction that
    financial markets are basically sound, but just have been experiencing
    problems, which various degrees of tinkering should sort out. But a
    kleptocracy means that the financial markets are fundamentally unsound,
    that they are little more than the arena for criminal enterprises. Look
    at all the frauds in origination in the housing bubble, the subsequent
    gambling that was securitization, and now foreclosure-gate. Look at the
    ongoing manipulation of commodities markets and the similar use of
    high-frequency trading (HFT) in stock markets. Look at all the backdoor
    bailouts and lobbyist written legislation. Look at financial industry
    whores, like Dodd and Frank. Now tell me which is the more accurate
    picture, kleptocracy or a sound system with problems?

  29. August 6, 2012
    Mars Rover Should Not Get So Much Attention, Say Higgs-Boson Scientists

  30. A stunning and amazing achievement from NASA. A million things could have gone horribly wrong but didn't. To land such a vehicle on the surface of Mars is an almost unbelievable achievement, unless of course it was later shown to be have been faked.The video does show oddly unscientific popping and rocket noises but I for one quite enjoyed them.

  31. What's going on with this new comment system? My comments are normally designed to discreetly appear after those of my august and learned colleagues. Thus, only those readers with enough fortitude to get to the bottom of the list are therefore able to read them.

    Now they appear at the top, sticking out like the beauty spot on Chairman Mao's chin! Can't something be done to restore the proper order of things?

  32. Dear Casper, this system has been around almost for two months and it's been on 750,000 other websites for years. Don't you think it is a bit embarrassing that you still haven't managed to find out that under the "Discussion" tab at the top of the Disqus section, you may sort the comments from the best ones, oldest ones, or newest ones?

    Thank me very much. You are welcome.