Red Hot Mission

One more space frontier has been breached with NASA’s Mars rover called Curiosity making a touchdown on the Red Planet yesterday at 11.02 am India time. Reports say cheers rang out at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California US with the exclamation “Oh my God” summing up the feelings of the mission members. Now the robotic spacecraft Curiosity will begin a two-year search to find out if Mars once had conditions suitable for life.

Nehru Planetarium
Pathbreaking: Nehru Planetarium director Arvind Paranjpye against a picture of Mars at the Planetarium in the city. Pic/Sunil Tiwari

Many miles away from California and many more from Mars itself, there is a frisson of excitement in the scientific community everywhere. Says Arvind Paranjpye, director, Mumbai’s Nehru Planetarium, “The Curiosity was launched last year in November and since then, I have felt the excitement building up. Like many, I was keeping track via the Internet, getting information about the progress from friends and also watching NASA television on the net.”

 Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, California, United States: Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineers James Wong (L) and Errin Dalshaug (R) examine a full size engineered model of the Mars rover Curiosity PICS/AFP 

Pulsating Excitement
Members of the mission in Pasadena, California had a moniker called ‘seven minutes of terror’ to describe the descend and land sequence when the rover would pass through ‘the eye of the needle’ and land on Mars. All Paranjpye said is, “adrenalin was pounding in my veins. I knew the landing was a moment that would change space exploration forever and forge a new path for us. I felt like letting out a tremendous cheer, shedding some tears as I heard about the landing, but, I was controlling my emotions as some television news channels were interviewing me and I was in front of the camera. Yet, my joy was palpable, like, I guess it was for men and women of science everywhere.”

Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, California, United States: Peter Ilott (C) and his colleagues celebrate a successful landing, inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California 

Just as Mumbaikars were submerged in the Monday morning blues, the Red Planet (Incidentally, would we have Monday morning blues on Mars too?) got its 9.8 ft long visitor, which landed on Gale Crater. Says Paranjpye, “It will determine whether conditions were suitable to life. We always knew there was frozen water on Mars, now we will learn if there was flowing/liquid form water. It will also dig holes in the surface of Mars and see if there was evidence of primitive life. It would be tremendous to know if life also existed elsewhere besides Earth.”

Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, California, United States: (From L) Richard Cook, MSL deputy project manager, Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager and Adam Steltzner, MSL entry, descent and landing (EDL) of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity Rover team celebrate at a press conference after the Mars Rover Curiosity successfully landed 

While understandably the science community is over the moon (wrong usage here? Maybe, it should read over the Mars?) at the landing, the Planetarium director states that the mission is important for, “humanity, not just for scientists or space experts.” He props up that statement with an example, “when electricity was first discovered, people used to say, what is the use of electricity? Today, of course, we cannot live without it. So, missions and explorations that seem unnecessary initially, transform our lives. It is like the first time that heat resistant clothes were made for firefighters. A breakthrough was made. In seemingly ordinary, everyday life or even in the world of science one should never stop pushing the envelope or opening new frontiers. One day, the extraordinary becomes the ordinary and then we have new frontiers to explore, barriers to break.”

Canberra Deep Space Communication Station
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia: A general view shows the 70 metre dish that is tracking NASA’s Mars science laboratory car-sized rover Curiosity at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Station at Tidbinbilla in Canberra on August 6, 2012 

India’s Mission
Paranjpye explained, “I am often asked why Mars, why not another planet? and I say we are exploring Mars, because loosely it has some similarities to Earth, like water and there is some atmosphere, it is also the nearest planet.” Paranjpye also talked about the seminal man on the moon mission in 1969, “at that time we put a man on the moon. Today, we are so technologically advanced that robots are doing that work, we do not need to put human lives in any kind of danger. A machine is able to give us prior information we need and then, perhaps we can send humans there, though of course, there are a lot of ifs attached to that.”

Pasadena, California, United States: Steve Collins waits during the ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’ as the rover approaches the surface of Mars, inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California 

Paranjpye spoke a bit about space tourism, still prohibitively expensive and said that the incredible can become the credible. “Space tourism to Mars? Impossible to think of now, but it could happen who know many, many years from now.”

Pasadena, California, United States: Activity lead Bobak Ferdowsi, who cuts his hair differently for each mission, works inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover 

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is also planning a mission to Mars in 2013, where a robot would be orbiting the planet, with somewhat similar aims as Curiosity, to collect as much information as possible about the planet.

More intangible gains from missions like these are that they fire up young imaginations, about the infinite possibilities of life -- both literally and metaphorically speaking. “I speak for my generation when I say that I hope such breakthroughs excite the youth of this country. Some bright students should be impassioned enough to say, that they would want to be a part of a mission like this, the next time. Then, we are at a great juncture,” signed off Paranjpye.

With its giant leap for mankind, Curiosity exemplifies man is man and machine is machine and the twain do meet. They meet to prove human Curiosity (pun intended)for the unknown is insatiable.

Ivin Speak
Some months ago, US NASA astronaut Marsha Ivins was in Mumbai and gave a talk at the Nehru Planetarium about her experience on several space missions. She had this to say about the possibility of life on Mars at a press conference:

“Right now, the life we lead on Earth, is not possible on Mars, the conditions are not the same. Of course, there have been suggestions of living in oxygen domes, or something, but your grandchildren (referring to a young journalist) may see something like that.”  

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