Sun 24 Feb 2013
Less than seven months have passed since our jubilation at the historic events of August 5, 2012, and yet most folks seem to have almost forgotten about them.
No, I’m not talking about the 100th anniversary of Tomales High’s opening. Yes, the school did open on August 5, 1912. And, yes, Tomales Regional History Center on August 5, 2012, (which conveniently fell on a Sunday) held a lively reception for a new exhibit on the school’s evolution. None of that will ever be forgotten.
What seems to be fading from memory are the events that occurred a few hours after the History Center’s reception had ended. NASA scientists endured what they called “seven minutes of terror” and gently landed an automobile-size robot called Curiosity Rover on the planet Mars.
Mars is a mere 154 million miles away as the crow flies. The spacecraft carrying Curiosity, however, took a circuitous route, so the trip expanded to 350 million miles and took eight months.
Back in August, Curiosity’s landing on Mars was news around the globe, but that news cycle is long gone. Nowadays, the press rarely reports on NASA’s curious robot. Nonetheless, Curiosity is still up there, and it’s doing stuff even more significant than landing gently.
Of late, the rover has been drilling holes in Martian rocks. It is now analyzing bits of ground-up rock to learn what Mars is made of.
Curiosity Rover’s self-portrait at what NASA has named the “John Klein” drilling site. The picture is a “mosaic” of dozens of exposures taken on February 3.
“The rover’s robotic arm is not visible in the mosaic,” NASA explains. The camera “which took the component images for this mosaic is mounted on a turret at the end of [the] arm.”
“The rover’s drill in action on Feb. 8, 2013, Curiosity’s 182nd Martian day of operations,” NASA says. “This was the first use of the drill for rock-sample collection. The target was a rock called ‘John Klein,’ in the Yellowknife Bay region of Gale Crater.”
Why does NASA call the rock outcropping “John Klein?” The Los Angeles Times’ answer: “The drilled rock is named John Klein after a deputy principal investigator for the [Mars] mission who died in 2011.”
As for the “Gale” of crater fame, that would be Walter Frederick Gale, an amateur astronomer from Sydney, Australia, who observed Mars in the late 1800s.
Yellowknife Bay, meanwhile, takes its name from the small city of Yellowknife on the shore of Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Last August, Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech sipposedly gave this explanation for why a chunk of Martian landscape had been given the name Yellowknife Bay: “If you ask, ‘What is the port of call you leave from to go on the great missions of geological mapping to the oldest rocks in North America?’ — it’s Yellowknife.”
The “Slave” in Great Slave Lake, by the way, has nothing to do with slavery. It refers to the Slavey people, a tribe indigenous to the area who nowadays usually call themselves Dene. The “Yellowknife,” who gave their name to the area, were a local tribe of Dene. Using copper from deposits near the Arctic Coast, the tribe made knifes and various tools to trade with outsiders.
Drilling a hole in Mars. To satisfy your Curiosity, I should note the hole is 0.63 inches (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) deep.
This, says NASA, is “where the rover conducted its first sample drilling on Mars…. Several preparatory activities with the drill preceded this operation, including a test that produced the shallower hole on the right two days earlier. The deeper hole resulted from the first use of the drill for rock-sample collection.”
A handful of dust.
Here, NASA reports, is “the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover’s drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover’s scoop.
“In planned subsequent steps, the sample will be sieved, and portions of it delivered to the ‘Chemistry and Mineralogy’ instrument and the ‘Sample Analysis at Mars’ instrument.” The instruments are, of course, onboard the robot.
Mars takes its name from ancient Rome’s god of war. The planet looks red because of iron oxide on its surface, so I guess it was reasonable to name it after the god of bloodshed. Curiosity’s drilling, however, has determined that Mars’ red color is only superficial. The planet isn’t rusty below its surface.
During the 1930s, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena established the antecedents for what would become NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Eighty years later, engineers at that lab are giving orders to a robot that’s on a planet 154 million miles away and all the while getting back scientific data. Of all the mind-boggling accomplishments of California’s current technology, operating an automobile-size, multi-talented robot as it carries out various tasks here and there around Mars would seem to top the list.
These are the eight presently accepted “planets” in our solar system, but that can always change. When I was growing up, Pluto was a ninth planet, but it got kicked out of the club in 2006 for being too small (about a third the volume of our moon). It is now dismissed as a “dwarf planet.” For the most part, Pluto’s orbit is outside Neptune’s. Its orbit, however, has been called “eccentric” because every so once in awhile Pluto gets closer to the sun than Neptune.
I gather that Curiosity’s analysis of the John Klein rock is turning up pretty much the same old minerals we have here on earth. No one, therefore, is likely to spend any money trying to strip mine the red planet. I’m sure extra-terrestrial environmentalists are pleased.
Of course, if NASA could manage to bring a bunch of martian rocks back to earth, they probably could be auctioned off for enough to finance a future mission to Mars.
Getting a robotic “rover” named Curiosity to Gale Crater took eight years of preparation and $2.5 billion. In comparison, the war in Afghanistan has been costing well over $2.5 billion every three days. This country would be in far better economic health if its rockets had been trained on outer space and not the Middle East.