Nothing terribly important of social conscience or political polemic from me today. Something of a slightly more ethereal nature, albeit material at the same time.
After a journey of 679 million kilometres, most of it in cyber-sleep, NASA’s latest robot spacecraft to be sent to Mars, arrived on Monday morning AEST. It, named Phoenix because the mission had been scrapped for cost reasons, only to be resurrected after an earlier mission failure, arrived in a mode not used by NASA for more than thirty years.
In 1976, Viking 2, NASA’s second robotic Mars lander, descended to the Martian surface after a de-orbit manoeuvre not unlike that which enables a space shuttle flight to come home. It plunged through the thin Martian atmosphere, shielded from the heat of atmospheric entry by an ablative shell, before abandoning that shell and firing a set of descent thrusters to slow for what’s called a ‘soft landing’. How soft a soft landing is, I’ll leave to your imagination. Suffice to say, Viking 2 landed safely, albeit on a slight lean of 8.2 degrees due to one footpad ending up sitting on a rock, to send home all manner of photo, biometric and telemetric data about where it was, what it was doing and how it felt. It did this for 1,281 Martian days, or Sols. Only slightly longer than a Terran day here on Earth. Viking 2 was powered by batteries. Radioisotope Thermal Generators, to be precise. Nuclear batteries.
Thirty-two years later, and after experiments with air-bags as a cushioning mechanism to preserve a robot explorer from what is essentially a damn hard landing – sans descent thrusters – NASA has returned to the time honoured method of landing on another world. Phoenix entered the Martian atmosphere, travelling at 5.300 kilometres per second, deliberately using the atmosphere as a braking mechanism. It’s called aero-braking and the most dramatic representation of this technique can be seen in the Peter Hyams film, 2010.
I dare say Phoenix’s entry was much less dramatic, but none the less tenuous. Once slowed enough, the ablation shield dropped away and large parachutes opened, slowing the spacecraft even more. Then, at a point determined by sophisticated radar imaging, the parachutes were jettisoned, the spacecraft slowing further by use of twelve propulsive thrusters which oriented the robot, maintained a steady descent and slight lateral movement to clear the ‘chutes, before settling ‘softly’ to the cold, desolate Martian surface. Now, I suggest any cynics out there stop for a moment, and consider that this robot explorer, hundreds of millions of kilometres away from it’s guardian controllers and operating entirely on instructions given it ten-and-a-half months ago with subtle prompts during it’s long cruise, achieved all of this fifteen minutes before those controllers knew it had happened. Eleven attempts to land on Mars have been made to date. Only five have succeeded. The Phoenix landing was quite an accomplishment. Phoenix won’t ‘live’ long, however. It’s landed at a high latitude in order to study the Martian northern polar region. It’s incredibly cold on Mars and robot spacecraft rely on solar power generation these days for the energy to function. When above 60° latitude, as on Earth, the Sun doesn’t shine for long during the day in a Martian winter. In fact, the Sun probably won’t shine much at all in winter and without power, Phoenix will die. It’s batteries are unlikely to be recharged come the Martian summer, as the cold will sap whatever power remains once the Sun drops below the horizon for months at a time. So Phoenix’s life span is rated at around three months. Time will tell, I suppose and maybe the robot will surprise it’s builders, just as the Rovers Spirit and Opportunity have, four years after they were supposed to have stopped for good.
We’ve become, in this high-speed, high-tech age, jaundiced about and bored with these feelers humanity puts out into our solar neighbourhood. We – some of us at any rate – decry the achievements of those who see that humanity’s future doesn’t lie here on Earth, but out among the darkness of space. We’ll never get there as a species unless we – this age of humanity – are prepared to pay for the tiny efforts like Phoenix, the two Mars Rovers, the orbiting Odyssey and Surveyor and the far more distant missions, Cassini and New Horizons. These tiny efforts are enormously expensive, but so is the nationalistic fervour with which we build and arm our military forces and engage in our petty backyard wars of aggression. What we spend on developing our species’ future is a mere soupcon compared to what we waste on killing our own kind, or planning to do so.
So, if you’re one of those cynics who don’t think learning about humanity’s ultimate progression is a worthwhile undertaking, stop for a bit and ponder the pictures from Phoenix sent home just moments after it landed. View the two photos up top in their full resolution and examine the surface of another world. It looks just like any gibber desert here on Earth, doesn’t it? Perhaps, one day in the far future when we’ve made this home world of ours into a version of Philip Kindred Dick’s world of the movie Bladerunner, maybe we’ll yearn for a place like Mars, or Ceres, or Europa, or Titan. For mine, I’m in complete awe of the feats humanity has performed since March, 1926 when Robert Goddard built and successfully flew the first liquid fuelled rocket. In less than a century, we’ve gone from a curiosity in an open field, to exploration of other worlds by robots which are capable of making their own basic decisions.
We don’t do badly, but we can do a whole lot better. We simply need to realise it.