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Curiosity prepares for Monday morning Martian landing

At the time KitGuru sits down to write this story, NASA’s Curiosity space rover is closer to Mars than the moon is to Earth. Around 6am UK time, the world’s most expensive landing vehicle will try and nestle its 1 ton bulk on the surface of the Red Planet and begin transmitting vital data. KitGuru crosses fingers, toes and eyes in an attempt to focus good luck energy skywards.

The science is intriguing, but when you put tomorrow morning’s effort in to real world terms, it’s even more impressive.

Find a fat mate, ideally one that weighs around 100Kg, then try and pick them up. Now get 8 of their mates around and get them to all stand in a single box and try to lift that. Next, contemplate that box being made of various metals, raise it up into the atmosphere and fire it at the ground at around 20,000 Km/hour. Fancy their chances of survival much?

This exactly the kind of problem that NASA has been working on since 2004.

No Intel Inside. No Microsoft in sight. Wow. How will NASA ever mount a serious mission to Mars without the world's leading processors and operating systems? Someone should offer them a deal on Windows 8. Surely.

Given that the distance between Mars and Earth can vary anywhere from 36 million to almost 250 million miles, the launch window for the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) was narrow, so when an Atlas V rocket blasted into the heavens on 26th November 2011 – NASA knew that it was firmly in the land of ‘do or die’.

Critics of space travel claim that the $2.5 Billion spend on the Mars Science Laboratory was too much.

In comparison, the amount spent by the USA on fighting wars in the Middle East over the past 10 years ($1.36 Trillion) would have paid for ‘Curiosity’ to be built and launched, once a day – almost every day – for nearly 2 years.

Bargain.

Call us old-fashioned, but we'd rather see rockets blasted into space for exploration than killing Marines for oil.

Boeing/Lockheed-Martin has created a lander that is generations ahead of its predecessors. For a start, it is around 10x the size of previous landed vehicles (2x wider and 5x longer).

Able to roll straight over obstacles around 30cm (1 foot) in height, Curiosity can investigate around 30 metres of Mars a day. It has been built to last almost 2 years, so in theory it will allow NASA to intimately survey an area that’s almost 500km long.

The real world does not often follow theory exactly, but if things go well, then the distance covered would be similar to travelling from London to Glasgow or Toronto to Washington. This is a huge distance and will hopefully yield convincing evidence, one way or the other, about Mars’ ability to support life in the past.

The challenge is not to find life that became extinct in the last century or millennium, but rather to find microbial life from at least 2 billion years ago. Having a large moon and molten core, enabled Earth to develop water-based life over a greater period of time – whereas the Martian core appears to have frozen shortly after the planet was formed (possibly ~4 billion years ago).

Earth's larger mass and bulky moon helped keep our core molten and, therefore, magnetic. As you can see, the Martian plates stopped moving a long time ago, temperatures plummeted and surface water dissipated

Geeks among the KitGuru audience will laugh at the relatively weak processing power that will be available for the mission:-

  • RAD750 processor manufactured by British Aerospace from IBM PowerPC 750 technology
  • Its 10.4 million transistors churn through more than 250 million instructions a second (250MIPS)
  • Alongside 256MB of DRAM, it also has a whopping 2GB of Flash memory
  • The whole package has been available for more than 10 years and it first went into space around 2005
  • Mounted on a special board, the radiation-hardened unit costs a mere $200,000
  • It can take an X-Ray/Gamma Ray licking and keep on ticking, while ambient temperatures around it can vary from a chilli -55 degrees to a toasty 70 degrees

The rover will parachute into the atmosphere and, shortly before landing, a carrier craft will deploy boosters to slow its decent completely. With luck, on Monday 6th August 2012 – 67 years to the day after Hiroshima was devastated by the world’s first atomic attack – a nuclear powered rover called Curiosity will begin to transmit amazing data back to scientists on earth.

With a mission duration of close to 2 years, we have to hope that something cool makes its way into the data stream.

Copying Zardon's pub-crawlling technique from the 80s, Curiosity should cushion down gently Monday morning

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We encourage you to join in with NASA’s ambitious journey over here.

KitGuru says: This mission really captures the imagination of a KitGuru. Exploring distant planets is the stuff of Sci-Fi and legend. We will all be watching out screens with baited breath – hoping that the landing mechanisms work 100% and the greatest Martian mission to date kicks off on Monday morning.

Comment below or in the KitGuru forums.

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