Curiosity extends its mission to Red Planet
By Bert Raynes, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 3, 2012
You’ve intruded your body into your modern shrunken motor vehicle, or you’ve plopped into a welcoming seat of a valley car. Insert ignition key, turn to start and off you go.
Off you go, already five miles over the speed limit, yet you haven’t checked to see if the brakes are working, let alone glanced at the tires. Pretty much reflex, and it works almost every time.
Operating most vehicles on Earth is pretty straightforward. Almost everybody can learn. Driving and using the multiple gadgets and scientific instruments aboard a vehicle on Mars from Earth is notably more difficult.
Curiosity, the latest NASA rover on Mars, is being driven by people in California. Before its first drive, the six-wheeled mobile laboratory was subjugated to a whole series of tests, carefully and meticulously done. Power, check. Camera, check. Mast, check. Mast-mounted telescope and laser, check. Steerable wheels, check. First roll of Curiosity, check. Forward, turn, reverse, take picture of tracks, check.
Certain that Curiosity’s 10 scientific instruments and other devices work, engineers and scientists from computers in Pasadena, Calif., dealt with a 14-minute time delay between sending from Earth to Mars and then 14 minutes to find out what, if anything, happened.
Curiosity is now two months into its mission to Mars, primarily to investigate whether conditions there have ever been favorable for microbial life. Currently, the rover has brought additional confirmation that water once existed on Mars, perhaps billions of years ago.
The search isn’t for intelligent life on Mars. Heck, that’s hard enough to find here on Earth.
People have been intrigued by Mars for many thousands of years. NASA and space agencies in other countries have had notions about the Red Planet since the Space Age started. Around 70 years ago — even earlier in some fiction books.
NASA has three orbiters around Mars presently. One of them, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, detected clear evidence of carbon dioxide snowfalls on Mars. Solid CO2 has to be almost minus 193 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. Mars ain’t our Red Desert.
Mars’ CO2 snow was detected in winter at its south pole, where CO2 ice has been known to exist for decades. Whether dry ice gets defrosted as snow or by freezing out at ground level as frost, this recent observation adds another clue to the mechanism.
Mars exploration is a top priority at NASA. It is laying the groundwork for a future mission there with scientific instruments and technology that credits human intelligence. Hope remains.
Field Notes: Last day of September: I’ve just watched the Walton Ranch cattle complete their trek down to the valley floor after summering in the high country. Took about an hour to trudge past. Say a mile an hour. Gentle hazing by a gaggle of riders having a pretty nice morning. Not like those cattle drives one read about as a kid. Cows nowadays are more domesticated, it appears. Didn’t notice many cows straying. And they all were black. Just strings of cattle trailing each other, raising dust, and mounted riders.
Autumn color is striking, despite (?) a dry, dry summer. Reduction in forest fire smoke helps. Cottonwoods are standouts, yielding to aspen clones.
Jim Farmer welcomed a long-eared owl on Friday. The bird rested most of the day in a single spot.
Kayla Michael spends many weeks in the backcountry each summer and early fall. Songbird populations were reduced in general, a disturbing trend in recent years. She did see a black-backed woodpecker in Grand Teton.
Jim Stanford questions the notable lack of great blue herons along some sections of the Snake River.
Pine siskins, Eurasian collared doves and crows seem to be doing just fine.
On a wonderful A.J. DeRosa Wooden Boat Tour for Nature Mapping JH on Sunday, a sizeable migration of American pipits was observed. Many bald eagles present along the Snake (Susan Patla). More than 60 red-tailed hawks migrating over the Tetons with other raptors, Bryan Bedrosian (Thursday).
Polly and Dick Vaughan enjoyed a great horned owl visit to their deck. In Buffalo Valley, yellow-rumped warblers were in migration last week (Friday, Debra Patla). It’s that time.
Be careful with fire.
© Bert Raynes 2012
Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.