Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Today Mars, tomorrow...

As I'm sure you've all heard and seen, a new Mars Rover landed the other day. It's not the first, but this one is special, and not just because we are exploring another planet. A few years ago I had the privelige of visiting NASA's Future Flight Central, a 360 degree flight simulator, and the guys there said, "Wanna see Mars?" So the rest of the group and I said "Sure," and they projected the Martian landscape all around us. It was vast, an endless plain, but also bland. This time will be different though, having landed inside a more interesting crater, with the vehicle capable of digging into the soil and doing analyses on the spot.

What makes me interested though is the way we have done it this time. Hitting the atmosphere at 6km per second, deploying parachutes, then the ingenious 'Skycrane' lowers the 900kg rover/mobile lab 'Curiosity' safely to the floor. At one stage 70 thrusters had to fire synchronously to land it safely. I'm impressed. If we can do this (my day job concerns human error in aviation, so I know how often we get things wrong!) then we can do a lot more. Already people start to ask about manned missions to Mars. But then what about a remote mission to one of Jupiter's moons, or to explore the asteroid belt?

It's easy to write about science fiction and gloss over the details thatt make it come true in reality. We still have an awful long way to go, but turning SF into reality will never be simply a matter of technology -- it will always be human inspiration and perspiration mixed in there, too.

To me this is one of the most exciting developments since the Apollo missions, because it shows our capability. We're on our way...

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