The site of Curiosity's landing, the darker ellipse near Mount Sharp, is 20 x 7 kilometers (Image courtesy: NASA)
As NASA’s most advanced rover Curiosity approaches Mars and prepares to land on our nearest planetary neighbor early morning on August 6, I am struck by how elemental everything is about the mission. From dust to dust aptly describes the whole massively complex and breathtakingly brilliant technological enterprise.
I am not even remotely qualified to breakdown all that goes into forging the rover but let me just point to two crucial ingredients that are extracted from the ground, earthly dust as it were. One is aluminium which forms the primary frame/structure of the rover and other is plutonium-238, heat from whose decay is converted into electricity to power Curiosity. That is one part of dust in my “From dust to dust” perspective on the mission.
The second part of dust involves the actual work that Curiosity will do on Mars. It will collect rock samples, eventually dust again, and analyze its composition to better understand Martian geology and through it, the planet’s overall composition. So what begins as dust on our own planet and used to construct the rover eventually ends up on another planet to examine dust there. If that is not truly elemental, what is? Hence from dust to dust.
With that out of my way let me tell you a little bit about how complex the mission is and how those outside NASA often fail to appreciate the amount of work that goes into making it a success. My benchmark for its success is much lower than NASA’s in that the very fact that it takes off and travels this much distance in accordance with our calculation is astonishing enough. Speaking of the distance, the average distance between Earth and Mars is 225 million kilometers (about 140 million miles). I say average because of the peculiarity of the two planets’ orbits. Their orbits are asynchronous which means that Mars can come as close to Earth as about 55 million kilometers (about 35 million miles) and move as far as 401 kilometers (about 250 million miles) depending on where in its elliptical orbit it is in relation to the Sun and us. Therefore the average works out to be 225 million kilometers. It takes about eight months to travel from Earth to Mars.
NASA launches its Mars mission to coincide with Mars’s closest approach to Earth every 26 months. Curiosity was launched on November 26, 2011 taking into the account the time it would take to cover the distance that I just described. Here is how it works. Although the rover is launched when Mars is at its closest, it reaches the planet only when it is at its farthest or in opposition to Earth. The most important reason behind the timing of the launch is that NASA wants to use the Sun’s gravity to sling it around and bring it close to the red planet. Once Curiosity approaches the Martian orbit it is slowed down by firing the boosters in order to get it trapped around Mars. It then begins its descent maneuvers. Imagine the amount of precise calculations and convergence of complex technologies that have gone into this mission.
After all this the rover gets down and dirty in the red dust of Martial soil picking up samples to analyze. The idea that we have to turn our own dust (aluminium) into something as fantastic as a rover and the equipment that surrounds it and fuel (plutonium-238) that powers it only to get dusty elsewhere is quite poetic to me.
So, so like that as the Dalai Lama likes to say.