After 8 months and about 225 million kilometers, the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) rover is set to arrive at Mars. After a 10 years of designing, building, and testing, we are finally ready to put our vehicle on the red planet. Touchdown will occur at approximately 10:30-10:32 pm PDT (1:30-1:32 am EST), so make sure you’re tuned in somewhere then.
Here’s how to watch the landing:
And while you watch, why not enjoy a Curiosity cocktail?
What Will You See Tonight?
Landing on Mars is extremely difficult, and much hype has been put out over that. But in all honesty, at this point in time there really isn’t anything that anyone on Earth can do but wait (and eat peanuts). The final landing software has been loaded onto the rover, and it is on autopilot until its wheels are on the ground.
Earth will actually set on Mars before the rover is safely on the surface, so the Mars Odyssey orbiter will be our primary way to hear about what is happening. Odyssey is working in a “bent pipe” mode where it beams directly what it hears from the rover back to Earth. If we don’t hear the first transmission, it will rebroadcast once it completes another Mars orbit (about two hours later). Another spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, will record the landing and first transmissions and beam them back to Earth, however that won’t happen for something like 12 hours. The most important transmission we could receive is a “tone”, what mission operators describe as a text message from the rover that gives a landing velocity and estimated position.
In the absolute best case scenario, we will get one image from the rover’s back up camera (Rear Hazcam). It will be black and white, incredibly small, and low resolution. It is highly unlikely we’ll see this. More likely, we will have to wait until the second Odyssey pass around 12:30 am PDT. On that flyover, we could get a Front Hazcam picture. Again, this would be a low quality image. In the days to follow, full color, high resolution images will flood to Earth, including a 5-fps movie of the final landing sequence taken from the rover.
What you will probably not see is me. The Jet Propulsion Lab has been under total lockdown since Friday. Only the operators, media, and VIPs will be on lab tonight. The primary “viewing party” is at Caltech. I’m not at that event (slightly annoyed…some choices were made by the powers that be on the order of the invites…). I will be at the Pasadena City College with the majority of the plebeians, and I’m not sure what news coverage will be there. In actuality, I’m a little glad: the location is a bit closer to the bars than Caltech…
Media display on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory mall.
I joined up with the Mars Science Laboratory Rover Chassis team in February 2007, about six months before the rover Critical Design Review. On day one, it was made very clear that I would be working on several pieces of flight hardware (i.e. things that would fly on the rover). All in all, I delivered about 15 parts/assemblies that are bolted to the rover prior to leaving the project in 2009. Six of these are somewhat involved in today’s landing.
On the rover is an electronics box that is responsible for firing some of the 76 pyrotechnic events around the rover during landing and more on the first few days on the surface. The decision was made during the project that this box should live outside of the rover so that our warm volume in the chassis was reserved for instruments used throughout the mission (the pyro firing box is not used after it fires all its bolts). Since Mars is very cold, something was needed to keep this box warm for the first few days of the mission.
In essence, I built a box, albeit a very, very complicated one. The job of this was to surround the pyro firing unit with a warm blanket of CO2 (the primary component of Mars’ atmosphere). This involved lifting the box off the chassis deck by means of four “legs”. These legs were especially complicated because they had to adapt to a set of bolt locations that had been determined before I arrived on the project (and, of course, were in a terrible layout). Not only that, they had to thermally isolate the box from the deck of the rover and account for an approximate 100 C temperature differential in the space of an inch or two. Finally, the box had to squeeze itself into a very oddly shaped volume, avoiding not only one of the main struts that locks the rover to the descent stage, but also one of the stowed wheels and the differential that controls our suspension system. It looks pretty bizarre out in the open.
Me and the flight RPFA Thermal Enclosure. Very sleep deprived in this shot.
You can see the box in context below (labeled 2). The interesting thing is, one of the first pictures to come back from the rover will be of the tiny, joystick looking thing sitting on top of my box (a calibration target). So if all goes to plan, you’ll have a nice picture of this thing sitting on Mars next week.
Mars Science Laboratory overview. Thermal Enclosure is labeled item 2.
Thoughts on the Landing
Today marks the end of a very long journey for me. Back in 4th grade, I found aerospace engineering through my father’s childhood model rocketry kit. Hidden back behind our train layout in the attic, it was filled with parachutes, thermometers, fin stock, and old catalogs. It smelled of sulfur from launch days past. It was not long until I was firing off my own rockets in Wilmington, DE’s Rockford Park. Down the road at Tower Hill School, I was given the opportunity to start a rocketry club by my science teacher at the time: Marie Vayo-Greenbaum. It was through her support, and later the support of the rest of the science and math department, that I am here today.
Shot from a digital rocket camera I built in high school. Photo was taken in Fall 1998 with a Kodak DC20 in “high resolution”.
Strangely, as I write this, I’m not nervous at all. I’m actually feeling the same sort of pre-show anticipation that I get before walking on stage with Beware of Safety. Oh, and while I’m on the topic, I have to apologize to the band North. North wanted to play a show with us tonight, which I, for obvious reasons, declined. It did, however, generate one of the best email chains ever:
Adam Kay: North is back in town to support their new release. I’d love to play with North. Who else is interested?
Steve Molter: Why does north like playing LA on Sundays?
Me: I can’t do it. MSL is landing on Mars that night. I will be occupied.
Steve Molter: In the history of bands, no one else has ever uttered anything similar to this. I love it!
Ah, my life…
Beyond anticipation, the thing I’m feeling most is gratitude. I’m grateful for the teachers at Tower Hill and USC that supported me. I’m grateful for those that tore me apart, not because they could, but to make me better. I’m grateful that my family pushed me to become more than I thought I could be. I’m grateful for the support (and patience) of my girlfriend Kerri and my friends. I’m grateful for the all-nighters, the failed tests, the unachievable standards imposed upon me, and for the 2008 MSL launch slip. They taught me that my job isn’t over at 99%. I’m grateful for those that let me struggle to learn, and those who sacrificed of their own time to help me cross the finish line. And, despite all of the politics that hold us back from being truly amazing, I’m grateful that I live in America, where we believe it is worth investing in a future beyond the horizon. It is because of these people and because of you, that I am here today. Success or failure tonight won’t change that.
So from the bottom of my heart, thank you.