• Hello from Pasadena!

    Or as the locals say it, “Hello from Pasadena!”

    This is Brendan Mullan, occasional astronomy grad student, Famelab participant, and all-around friend of the show. I’m here at JPL, ready to give you the latest updates on all things Mars Science Laboratory. You can expect a couple of juicy tidbits as the day progresses, injected with my characteristic affinity for obscure pop cultural references, inconsequential asides, and demonstrable contempt for journalistic objectivity and personal integrity of any kind! It’ll be fun for the whole family.

    You’ve read the news. You’ve seen the 7 Minutes of Terror video. You know the stakes, but you also understand the payoff. NASA’s putting all its money on red, and in a few hours the MSL rover Curiosity will spin the wheel and hope it doesn’t land on black.

    Or something. I’m not sure how this analogy works. I think I saw someone playing Roulette on TV once.

    Curiosity represents a monumental leap forward in the precision, variety and potential reward of science and exploration on Mars. Not to take anything away from past missions, of course, because in all sincerity they were nothing short of ingenious and revolutionary. Especially for the Pathfinder mission, which laudably succeeded in the latter part of decade that thought chain wallets, bringing back yo-yos, and listening to Sublime were all good ideas.

    “Have you seen my absurdly 90s website? This is the kind of thing I was up against.”

    But if I had to name the cinematic equivalents of the last fifteen years of rovers, I’d say Sojourner was like the adorable Brave Little Toaster (on wheels), the MER vehicles like Wall-E, and Curiosity would be one of the roving Hunter-Killer robots from The Terminator.

    You know, of science. Not wholesale murder.

    When Spirit and Opportunity packed their bags and left for the Red Planet, they managed to stow all 5 kg of their science luggage in the proverbial overhead bin. Curiosity, meanwhile, has fifteen times the science payload of its immediate predecessors. Can you imagine how much it costs to check all 75 kg of that baggage at the counter? American Airlines would probably lose it all or send it to Dubai or something, anyway.

    Either way, that’s a healthy amount of science — 165 lbs (on Earth) of cameras, spectrometers, climate monitors, and internal X-ray diffraction and sample analysis labs. All touching down tonight, along with about 824 kg worth of enveloping dune buggy.

    Scale model of Curiosity and a very confident dude wearing bell bottoms for some inexplicable reason. 

    75 kg is about the same mass as a person. In fact, it’s close to exactly as much as I weigh. Which for a second I thought was a neat coincidence — we’re both science payloads after all — before I realized how much better all these expensive instruments are at doing their jobs than I am.

    I mean, I was just proud of myself for shaving today. And this thing’s going to land in a city-sized area on another planet, after traveling some 300 million miles in total. You know that Proclaimers song? They might walk 500 miles, but Curiosity would walk almost a million times further. For science. One time I didn’t go into work because I stayed up all night watching Batman.

    But if all goes according to plan, Curiosity will touch down tonight in only a few hours. Stay tuned, kids!