Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Exploring other planets is cool, and it gets even cooler Monday when NASA’s SUV-sized automated, roving vehicle named Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars and begin searching for hints of ancient Martian life.
Officially called the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL for short, Curiosity began its journey to Mars on Nov. 26 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket, and it has been coasting to the Red Planet for the past 8 1/2 months. Once it arrives next week, a parachute will help to slow the speeding craft through the thin Martian air until a rocket-powered, hovering “sky crane” can lower the 1-ton rover to the Martian surface on a tether.
This new landing technology never has been tried on another planet, so there will be some intense, nail-biting minutes until NASA officials know that the
$2.5 billion rover has its wheels safely on the Martian dust.
An animated NASA video of the daring landing entitled “Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror” recently went viral on the Internet. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
Also new to this mission is the super-rover’s power supply. Unlike previous rovers that used solar panels to collect a trickle of energy from the sun, Curiosity carries its own miniature nuclear power source that will allow it to do much more science and move around a lot more — at least 12 miles throughout two years.
With a whole planet to explore, how do you select the best possible landing site to maximize Curiosity’s scientific returns and chances of survival? Mission scientists pored over orbital images and geological maps to pinpoint just the right spot, inside the 96-mile-wide Gale crater at the base of a mountain of clay that rises 18,000 feet above the crater floor. It is this clay that drew scientists’ attention to this area because clay is formed in a watery environment — exactly the kind of environment that is suitable for nurturing life as we know it.
What will Curiosity discover inside of Gale crater? No one knows — that’s the whole point. But we can all watch the excitement unfold on TV and the Internet on Monday and, afterward, wander out into the cool night air and look up at Mars in silent curiosity.
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.