hazard-herald.com

Mars landing could spur interest in exploration

Cris RitchieEditor

August 7, 2012

Weighing in at one ton and nearly the size of a car, NASA’s newest Mars rover, dubbed Curiosity, beamed out its first photograph from another planet early Monday morning, much to the relief of a team of anxiously awaiting, Earth-based mission controllers.


With a price tag of $2.5 billion, Curiosity’s mission is to determine whether or not Mars once had the ability to sustain life. A bevy of instrumentation, including a spectral analyzer and other sophisticated devices, are among the tools in Curiosity’s belt.


One person here in Hazard who is excitedly watching the rover’s mission unfold is Tom Cravens, director of the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky located on the campus of Hazard Community and Technical College.


“I think I’m like most Americans,” Cravens said. “I think everybody’s excited about it.”


The Challenger Center is the only such center of its kind in Eastern Kentucky, and serves as an avenue for young children to get a feel for what space exploration may be like. One of the center’s programs actually focuses on Mars and explores the similarities between coal mining and space science. It is an interesting program, Cravens said, as it geared toward fourth graders, who when they reach adulthood will be of the age when manned space flights to Mars could very well be a reality.


But for now, mankind is making its presence known on Mars via a remote-controlled robotic rover. Even so, it’s an exciting time considering the ingenuity it took to land the large rover on our celestial neighbor, intact and operational.


“When you look at how many moving parts there were to that thing, and how many things could go wrong, it is truly an engineering feat that they were able to make that work,” Cravens said.


Curiosity’s landing was like something straight out of a science fiction novel. Encased in a capsule for its eight-month journey to Mars, the rover penetrated the Martian atmosphere at a blistering 13,000 miles per hour before a parachute deployed to slow the capsule’s descent and allow a sky crane — held aloft by a rocket booster — to further slow the capsule enough for Curiosity to be lowered on cables to the planet’s surface.


Curiosity’s journey to Mars covered more than 300 million miles. The rover is expected to explore the planet’s surface for two years, though if it holds out like its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, it could go well beyond that life expectancy. Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004, and were only expected to last for a few months. Opportunity is still beaming back data for scientists to analyze.


Mission controllers will be hoping to build on the successes of the earlier rovers. That mission resulted in the discovery of evidence that Mars was once a warmer planet with flowing liquid on its surface, both of which are thought to be necessary components for the formation of life.


Curiosity touched down at 10:32 p.m. Sunday night, sparking a media frenzy as the rover’s first black-and-white photographs were released to the public showing its shadow cast upon the red plant’s surface. Cravens said the rover’s successful landing could serve to bring interest back to an agency that has befallen uncertain times as the nation continues to navigate through a tough economy. NASA’s shuttle program was recently scrapped, and according to news reports the agency’s Mars exploration budget is also slated for cuts next year.


A lot of people have remained serious about exploring Mars and the opportunities the planet could represent, Cravens added, but some serious thought will also be needed as the program moves forward.


“The people that would need to get serious about it are the decision makers in Washington that put an emphasis on it, kind of like JFK put an emphasis on going to the moon,” he said.


And while Cravens expects the new rover to find further evidence that Mars was once a warmer planet, he noted that he isn’t willing just yet to make any kind of predictions of how successful Curiosity will be in finding actual signs of life. He is, however, hopeful that the mission will spur excitement about space exploration.


“I think this has maybe got a lot of people excited about it.”