05
Aug 2012

A new face on Mars

POSTED BY: BRENDAN MULLAN
 

Tonight, Mars will have a new face.

 

Aw, it has its mother’s eyes!

Naturally, we’re all hoping that the face stays intact and makes it to the surface with the rest of Curiosity, as opposed to catastrophically slamming into the surface at 13,000 miles per hour as dispersed, charred bits of human anguish and crushed aspiration.

After participating in the weekend-long educator workshop at JPL, I’ve developed a strong proclivity for anthropomorphizing NASA’s latest mission to Mars. After a few days of getting to know Curiosity a little better, you stop seeing lists of dull instrument acronyms and start seeing the rover’s face, its eyes, nose and mouth, and its guts inside the chassis.

This “face” will sit atop the rover’s mast, with two eyes, the “MastCam” surveying the surrounding landscape. The eyes have different focal lengths and pixel scales, so one eye can take wide images and the other can focus on the details. They say the right eye can read the words “One Cent” on a penny on the ground next to the rover.

And as someone whose comical nearsightedness is a constant reminder of being the punchline of natural selection’s cruel joke, I’m a little jealous. Without my glasses, I wouldn’t be able to read “One Cent” if was painted to scale on a frisbee and smashed up against my face.

The two cameras are also equipped with true color imaging, so maybe we can all finally stop arguing over the right way to calibrate the color response and the people over in Crazy Town Banana Pants will quit insisting Mars has a blue sky with rainbows and unicorns and all that.

I mean, a unicorn wouldn’t even be able to fly in such a sparse atmosphere. Duh.

Remember what I said earlier about Curiosity being like the Hunter-Killers of space exploration? I wasn’t kidding. The rover’s “nose,” ChemCam, is literally a high-powered laser/spectrometer mounted on a roving platform. Does this terrify anyone else? This thing is on another planet and I’m still kind of scared of what it can do.

 

Instead of a rock, imagine your soft, supple flesh.

The idea is to zap targets of interest into a cloud of plasma. Once the electrons and nuclei of this stuff settles down again and recombines to form atoms, they spit out light of specific colors. The spectrometer in ChemCam picks up on that and smarter people than me can determine what that sample is was made of. It “sniffs” out the chemical composition of interesting parts of Mars.

I’m just hoping that Curiosity doesn’t get angry at us for stranding it there. I’m irrationally concerned it might clandestinely devise a way to return and exact its horrifying revenge on those that wronged it. Remember, it can smell you. It knows what you’re made of. It can smell your fear.

 

“Hmmm… I detect coffee, liberal amounts of alcohol, and self-loathing. You must be a grad student!”

What’s providing the juice for the rover’s eyes and nose (and everything else)? You might have noticed that this 2012 model of Mars rovers doesn’t come with those shiny black solar panels that lent Spirit, Opportunity, and Sojourner their distinguished, instantly identifiable “Hey I do science on other worlds!” appearance.

But on the plus side, this one does have more cup holders.

Instead, Curiosity is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. I would wager that the only way you make that sound more impressive and science-y is to affix “quantum” or “flux capacitor” to the name. I’m kind of disappointed no one tried.

This power source harnesses the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 dioxide to supply electricity to the rover and keep it toasty when it gets cold. More importantly, it provides the rover resilience to the caked-on layers of dust that occasionally choked the rovers of electricity and made them look more like the Ashy Larry of Mars exploration after a couple of years on the ground.

That’s right, that was a Chappelle’s Show reference. Didn’t think those two categories overlapped, did you?

Less than six hours left in regulation play! Stay curious, my friends.

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