2012-08-16 / View From the Middle

View From The Middle

We Have A Robot On Mars; What Could Be Next?
By Charles Rogers

Pardon my naivetĂ©, but I’m NUTS about Curiosity, the Mars rover that landed on our neighboring planet last week. Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed about those trips to outer space and imagined myself boarding an “Enterprise” with fellow astronauts on a nonchalant, one-day visit to Mars.

Watching our own space race years ago, culminating with Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s jaunt on the moon was, at one time, what I considered the epitome of my space fantasies. I must admit it was easy to conjure up visions of moon dust puffing and drifting into my boots as I — golf club in hand — traversed the land between the craters.

And now this: a roving robot, flawlessly and gently landing in the middle of the Red Planet exactly as aimed, dazzling the world — us earthlings, anyway — thanks to the expertise of scientists who had been working on the project for eight years. They figuratively accompanied it on its 254-day journey through 352 million miles of frigid space and breathed only tentatively for seven minutes as it floated down to the surface and immediately began its studies. True, there are other rovers, beginning in 1976, that were cocooned in airbags when they were dropped onto the surface, but technically they were primitive neophytes. Fittingly, they called this rover Curiosity and, yes, it is already beginning to satiate our, uh, curiosity. First, with the click of a switch from NASA controllers on Earth, the rover raised its mast containing high-definition cameras and navigation equipment and, within one day, it sent a 360-degree panorama of Gale Crater, the spot where it landed, and scientists were heard to remark how surprisingly akin the view is to, say, our own Mojave Desert in California.

One of the big questions scientists want to answer, of course, is if any form of life ever existed on Mars. Although Curiosity is not equipped to look for actual microbes, it will attempt to answer whether the giant crater ever had the right conditions within it to support life. The rock-zapping laser and mobile chemistry lab among its instruments are joined with a long robotic arm that will investigate the essence of rocks in a jackhammer-like effort. And it will hunt for some of the basic ingredients of life, including carbon, as well as minerals — anything that will give us a clue that at one time, no matter how far in the past, there might have been some form of life there.

The search on that count will have to be taken up in the future. It cost $2.5 billion — a billion more than at first expected — for this current exploratory journey. Before the successful landing, NASA’s programs seemed to be on the wane and, had this latest venture failed, reverberations would have been widely heard. Some of those projects that had been even vaguely proposed would have been thrown to the ground, perhaps to be eventually taken up by commercial entities — or, sadly, not at all.

Now, considering we’ve once again taken a leadership position in space exploration, we can let that American ingenuity flourish and get on with the next task: a manned mission to the Red Planet. President Obama has officially set a goal for astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, followed by a landing. We don’t know, at this point, all the ramifications such a trip would involve, not the least of which concerns whether life once existed there and whether microbes from Mars, if brought back to Earth, would harm us.

At the same time, it must be considered that, if we send human beings to that planet, we could contaminate its surface.

As they say in the science journals (paraphrased, of course): It ain’t easy!

Hey, Jules Verne was among those who said a trip to Mars could be done. So did H.G. Wells and Azimov and Bradbury and countless other science fiction seers who wrote so elegantly and with such foresight as they graced the literary scene through the years. You can bet they told themselves that, despite their expertise with the romance of their own creative imagination, those dreams would eventually become a reality. They weren’t just thoughts of fancy, put together for the enjoyment of readers and, yes, other dreamers. They were insights into what could be done.

And now we’ve done it!

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