Curiosity: it’s only just begun

I know that some of you, as did I, stayed up last night to watch the Mars rover “Curiosity” execute a successful touchdown on the red planet.  It was a highly emotional moment, not just for the engineers, technicians, and other NASA personnel who went wild in the control room when the words “touchdown confirmed” were announced, but also the rest of us. It was a triumph for science and the human spirit, as the readers of my live Curiosity “blog” can attest.  And it was all so improbable.  As Matthew Cobb responded when I asked him if he got up early enough to watch it (he’s in Manchester, England):

No I’m ashamed to say I was asleep. I don’t think I could have stood the tension. I was so sure it was going to fail, given a) Mars’ history and b) the crazy way they decided to land the damn thing. Absolutely astonishing. More amazing and exciting than the whole of the Olympics put together.

There’s a short—too short—account of the landing by Kenneth Chang in today’s New York Times; it includes this:

The landing, involving a seemingly impossible sequence of complex maneuvers, proceeded like clockwork: the capsule containing Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere, the parachute deployed, the rocket engines fired, the rover was lowered and, finally, the Curiosity was on the ground.

Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings.

NASA will spend the first month checking out Curiosity. The first drive could occur early next month. The rover would not scoop its first sample of Martian soil until mid-September at the earliest, and the first drilling into rock would occur in October or November.

Because Curiosity is powered by electricity generated from the heat of a chunk of plutonium, it could continue operating for years, perhaps decades, in exploring the 96-mile-wide crater where it has landed.

Meanwhile, Irish comedian and science lover Dara O’Briain said this on Twitter:

And this is the photo, taken by C. S. Muncy:

It’s a great morning to be a human.

Oh, and if you’re late to work today (I’m a bit groggy myself), you can haz this from xkcd:

p.s. If you like science that much, read the damn sloth post!


  1. Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    I have to drive a long distance today so I couldn’t watch. Thanks for the report though.

  2. Marella
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    Being in Australia I was able to watch it all in the middle of the afternoon, it was fabulous!

    • Marella
      Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:30 am | Permalink

      And I already read the sloth post.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:52 am | Permalink


    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

      Yeah, well, I’m in Australia, but I was hard at work at 3:30pm. 😦

      • Joe 'Blondie' Manco
        Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:59 am | Permalink

        I would have been hard at work, but my boss was out of the office, so I got to watch the whole thing. 🙂

      • Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        They timed it specially for us in New Zealand at 5.31pm. I was in the Carter Observatory in Wellington with 100 others, and the floor at the front was full of kids.

        (Odd illusion: They projected it on a mushroom-coloured wall {which I could compare with the white wall-sockets mounted on it}, but the whites in the image appeared perfectly white.)

  3. Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    p.s. If you like science that much, read the damn sloth post!

    Those sloths look just like people in Times Square 🙂

    • sgo
      Posted August 6, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink


      I too did read the sloth post, but this is more up my alley. I got up too to watch the landing (and I’m going to work a little later). I didn’t know they were watching it in Times Square but that is pretty cool.

  4. Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:41 am | Permalink

    Sigh. I’m just too old for that. I gave up at 1:30 am in my time zone. Now to find a replay of the video…glad to hear it went well…

  5. Jon
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Joe Palca did an interesting back story for NPR about Adam Steltzner, the EDL team leader who appears at the beginning of the Seven Minutes of Terror video. There are snakeskin boots involved.

    “Crazy Smart: When A Rocker Designs A Mars Lander”

  6. Grania Spingies
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    I got a call from a kind friend in the States to wake me up as it was early morning here in Ireland. It was so worth it!

  7. Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Amazing!! Can’t sleep!

  8. Dominic
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    I am dubious about the prospects of finding life on Mars. (I realize however that they are looking for the building blocks of life.) I expect that many will disagree. This was Lovelock on it –

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      They aren’t looking for life on Mars. The title of the mission is ‘past life’ on Mars. Good article here:

    • chemicalscum
      Posted August 6, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      Yes I am one that disagrees. The Labelled Release (LR) experiments on the Viking landers back in 1975 produced a strong case for microbial life on Mars.

      Klaus Bieman (the distinguished Mass Spectrometrist and leader of the chemistry group)and the chemistry establishment (I write this as both a chemist and a mass spectrometrist) vituperatively attacked the results of Gilbert Levin’s Labelled Release experiments. Gilbert Levin was an environmental engineer and inventor who had obtained a Ph.D. from the research conducted to develop the LR device did not have Bieman’s academic clout, so the full implications of LR results were suppressed by the chemists propaganda campaign to discredit them. None of the chemcial causes for the CO2 release that they proposed (typically from the presence of superoxides in the Martian soils) could replicate the LR results. Levin’s positive results for the extremely low level of microbes in Antarctic ice cores which were consistent with plating out results, showed the sensitivity of the device. It’s negative results for Lunar rock samples showed its resistance to false positives.

      I doubt Bieman’s mass spectrometry experiment would have been capable of detecting organic molecules in Antarctic ice cores at the extremely low levels there. Anyway there was evidence of possible malfunctions in the chemistry groups experiments on Mars. The LR results provide a strong case for the existence of microbial life on Mars possibly detected in a dormant spore form. It is a tragedy that Levin’s proposed chiral LR experiment (a much more specific detector for living microbes) has not been included in recent US Mars expeditions to put this to the test.

      Recent mathematical analysis of the LR results supports its interpretation as a strong case for the presence of microbial lif on Mars:

  9. TJR
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    With all these posts about Curiosity there don’t seem to have been any about cats recently.

    So, Curiosity killed the cat posts.

    I’ll get me coat.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted August 6, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Will you be “here all week. And tip your server well.”??

  10. ForCarl
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    I didn’t see the midnight show, but I have to thank you for posting the photo of the young people in Times Square cheering a science adventure. It gives me hope for the future.

    • Posted August 6, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I loved that, too! Couldn’t help but think, though, “How come the police won’t allow peaceful protestors alone like they left these folks alone?”

  11. Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    to the anti-science hypocrites: Science works. Now go fail again with your prayers.

    and why doubt life on Mars, once or now? Just more delusions that somehow we’re “special”.

  12. kansaskitty
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    I stayed up to watch the landing – the tension was palpable and then jubilation! It was so worth the bleary state of my eyes this morning. I can’t wait to see the research and color photos when they begin coming in! Dare mighty things indeed.

  13. Greg Esres
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you label this as a “human” accomplishment, rather than an “American” one. It’s time we all started to think that way.

  14. Posted August 6, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this fabulous post, Jerry, and for the link to the NY Times article.

    Now this has got to be the understatement of the millennia…**“These things are really hard to do,” Mr. McCuistion said.**

    And yet, it boggles my mind that getting to Mars is not as hard as the god-deluded to come to terms with and accept the fact that *there is no god*!

  15. msobel
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    We are going to regret all these spy missions when the Martian Imperial Navy launches its reprisal.

    • Posted August 6, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack!”

      I for one welcome our new Martian overlords…


  16. Chris Quartly
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Pleased to see Stuart Clark getting a mention both on Twitter and subsequently on here! He’s just started a new column on The Guardian’s website which is well worth following:

  17. docbill1351
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Kink was asleep in the chair but I watched NASA TV on the big screen and had the landing simulation going on my Mac.

    To me the scariest part of the descent was the rocket “helicopter.” The software that controls the rockets must be astounding.

    It will be interesting to see where the descent module landed and I’m sure the orbiting cameras will give us that answer in due time.

    Kink woke up briefly during all the cheering but when I carried him to bed he was a limp sack of sand.

  18. Neil
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Those peanuts must really work.

    • Posted August 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Finally, a whole new and good meaning to the term “peanut gallery.” Proper re-purposing: done!

  19. MNb
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Frankly I think the sloth post a lot more interesting than the Curiosity thing. Until it finds traces of life of course.
    And I’m a teacher physics. The higgs-boson – that was exciting.

    • Posted August 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      We are more certain that Curiosity has landed on Mars than we are that we’ve discovered the Higgs boson! 😉


  20. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    In my humble opinion, I found the complexity of two maneuvers that cannot be “live” tested on Earth, that must simply be programmed and run through simulations, to be the most impressive part of the seven minutes of terror: The giant parachute and its deployment, and the skycrane thrusters. Even some small anomaly in the upper Mars atmosphere could have distorted the trajectory during the heat shield portion of the descent, creating the need for multiple corrections to the program, in real time. This type of what-if is no doubt the reason you assemble a very large team of the best of the very best Sapiens to execute a mission like this.

    It’s sort of analogous to designing a passenger aircraft, building it, then loading it with passengers in every seat, and a huge slug of fuel, for its initial, first-ever flight. It just seems impossible that untried systems work on the first pull of the lever.

  21. cruzrad
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Cute timely headline (even if it was on a Fox News feed):

    Curiosity Sticks the Landing!

  22. Jonathan Hartley
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Got up early (well 6.00am BST is early for me) and watched it all while sitting in front of my PC in my dressing gown with a cup of tea. I had to laugh when I saw the @MarsCuriosity tweet “…So long & thanks for all the navigation…”

  23. Posted August 6, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    I did read the damn sloth post, and shared it on FB too…but I slept through the landing. this nerd needs his beauty sleep!

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