Sunday, May 25, 2008

Something To Celebrate

[The view from Opportunity's camera early in its mission. Image credit: NASA]

It's Memorial Day Weekend in America, and while there's plenty to memorialize these days, I'd thought I'd take a moment to remark on something worth celebrating:

Come Sunday evening, NASA will have placed some new hardware on Mars. Whether the Phoenix spacecraft lands in one piece or ends up in a number of charred scraps remains to be seen.

The Phoenix Mars Lander is the latest embodiment of humankind's quest to learn whether life might once have been sustainable on the Red Planet and to prepare for eventual human exploration there.

For Mars lander, a trial by fire

Since Mars has an atmosphere, albeit a thin one, the challenges of landing there are similar to the ones on this planet. While Mars isn't covered with water, it is covered with lots of rocks, sand, and other nasty stuff:

The most challenging part of the entire mission, getting from the top of the atmosphere to a safe landing on three legs, still lies ahead. Internationally, only five of the 11 attempts to land a spacecraft on Mars have succeeded.

Mars Pulls Phoenix In

The good news is that of those five successful landings, all were accomplished by NASA. By my count, they're five for eight, with one of those failures being the notorious Mars Climate Orbiter:

Mars Climate Orbiter is infamous for Lockheed Martin engineers mixing up the usage of imperial units with metric units, causing the orbiter to burn up while entering Mars' atmosphere.

Wikipedia: Mars Landings

There are many calculations that have to be made correctly in order for a spacecraft, even one without design flaws, to reach the surface of another planet successfully. Let's hope NASA gets the sums right, and nothing unforeseen happens.

There are far less expensive ways to make a flaming mess on Memorial Day.

Much as NASA's Apollo missions were a contrast to the tragedy that was unfolding in Vietnam, these Mars missions and the International Space Station are reminders that we can do better. Thousands of people working for dozens of different entities worked together to make this thing fly across space and attempt to land on another world. That's what's worth celebrating.

UPDATE (May 26): The landing was a success, according to NASA. Update here.

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