A lot of people who are involved with astronomy also work with robots, whether as part of Science Olympiad or on the side. So I want you to imagine the following scenario:
You are part of a team working on building a new robot. It needs to successfully complete a certain maneuver without any assistance from you or your partners at the time. But wait- the maneuver it has to make involves slowing to a stop from well over 10,000 mph. In just a few minutes.
And also landing on the ground.
After an eight month voyage.
If you aren’t hiding behind the couch yet, you should be. But NASA stepped up to the challenge and said, “No big deal. We got this.”
NASA’s new Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars last night, has been in the works for over a year. For the past eight months, it’s been speeding through space towards the fourth planet, and last night it finally made its touchdown.
Don’t be fooled, though, NASA was scared out of its wits last night. Just to make everything even more challenging, the type of landing used by Curiosity had never been attempted in space before. Thus, NASA dubbed the landing “Seven Minutes of Terror.” We’re thinking NASA might have been thinking ahead to potential movie deals.
To give you an idea as to the extreme difficulty and the precision required with this project, just look at how happy NASA is when they hear (14 minutes after the landing) of its success:
While this landing will give us a great deal of new information about the red planet (Life on Mars-????????), it also represents the future of the United States space program. It might sound crazy calling an unmanned rover the flagship of the space program, but that’s exactly how it should be perceived. Let’s go back to last year.
The big news-making event involving NASA last year had nothing to do with discovery or exploration- it was the end of the space shuttle. The space shuttle was our ticket to send humans into space; without it, we have to rely on the Russians and commercial spacecraft for at least about five years. The loss of the space shuttle was taken as a big step back for the space program, but then, options were limited. NASA’s budget has taken a hit in recent years, and the government just doesn’t seem interested in space exploration.
We heard it everywhere: “The US will begin to fall behind in the space race.” China and Russia would take the lead and the US would become an inferior nation when it came to space exploration and development.
But let’s take a look at the Mars scoreboard: U.S. 7, The Rest of the World 0. The U.S. now has nine spacecraft on Mars, all but two operating for a substantial amount of time. (The other two failed during the landing. The Soviet Union sent three spacecraft to Mars; two failed during landing, one transmitted just 15 seconds before failing).
The U.S. is still leading the Space Race because the goal of the Space Race has changed. No longer is the objective to get people into space, into orbit, onto the moon. Now, the Race is less competitive- who can first develop the technology to explore the unknown, and to improve our way of life? The successful landing of Curiosity proves that the U.S. is still light years ahead (pun completely intended) of other countries in this area- great news for students thinking of going into aerospace and engineering or astronomy, but doubting NASA’s future.
So now we turn to NASA’s future- where to next? The popular idea is, of course, sending astronauts to walk on Mars. Yet I’m almost certain this isn’t the path NASA will choose to follow. Walking on Mars is still a reasonable minimum of twenty years away, and there are many logistical problems still to be solved. However, there are other options that could benefit human life even more.
Why not pay a visit to Saturn’s moon, Titan, or Jupiter’s moon, Europa? Both moons are some of the best chances to find life beyond Earth. We’ve landed a probe on Titan, and it gave us an amazing photograph (seen at right)- the only picture of a planet or moon’s surface beyond Mars. There are already plans in the work to send orbiters to both moons, and sending a rover to either one would be an impressive feat- though it would be several years before that would be feasible, and several more years before any spacecraft would actually arrive at the moons.
Or, we could look at some options closer to home. While we don’t seem to be in any immediate danger from asteroids, asteroid detection and deflection technology might be worth looking into. We still haven’t found everything that’s out there, and there is a small possibility Earth could be hit by a sizable asteroid in the near future. The good news is, we’re working on this too. One of the brightest possibilities was called “Mirror Bees” and involved sending several dozen satellites to reflect sunlight at a spot on an asteroid to destroy it. (They actually worked better than nuclear warheads!) Lasers were later discovered to work better, so now they’re called “Laser Bees”. And as great as that sounds, I just can’t shake the idea that these laser bees will turn against us and lead a terrifying robot rebellion.
One final path NASA might choose to take could solve the energy crisis. Space based solar power isn’t a new idea, but we’re finally developing the technology to take advantage of a virtually unlimited source of energy: The sun. Collecting solar power in space is much more efficient than on Earth, but the current problem lies with transporting that energy back to earth. Once this problem is solved and the technology becomes cost-efficient, however, space based solar power could solve a lot of energy problems.
NASA proved once again last night that America is at the forefront of developing new technology for space exploration. The potential for NASA moving forward into the future is sky-high (and beyond!). Perhaps President Obama put it best in his official statement: “The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.”
Space enthusiasts like myself can rest easy knowing that the future of space exploration is in good hands. If NASA continues these feats, we very well may go Onward to the Edge within our lifetime. The landing of Curiosity last night through seven minutes of terror was one small touchdown for a rover, but one giant leap for space exploration.
TL;DR: NASA scientists are awesome. You should send them a gift card.