Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!


Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 6, 2012

I gotta admit, as much as I tried to blow it off as “no big deal,” the Curiosity landing on Mars thrilled me. I was glued to the NASA feed through the entire entry — realizing, of course, that by the time we saw anything the limitations of light-speed meant that it had already happened several minutes earlier.

I’ve recently read The Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell, which is some good ol’ military space-opera stuff where light-speed communication and sensors is the single greatest factor in all fleet engagements – all maneuvers have to be timed in advance with contingencies to make up for the fact that your view of the battlefield – a star system – and even your own fleet is based on progressively stale data.  So seeing it happen in “real life,” bizarre as a concept as it is to terrestrial experience, was already pretty cool.

I was born only scant weeks before man walked on the moon. A sci-fi geek at a young age, I was still a little too young to really hear or understand about the Viking landings on Mars when they happened – but when I finally saw the pictures a year or two later in a magazine (around the same time Star Wars was released), they blew my mind. Real pictures from another world! Not just the moon, but a full-on planet in our solar system! And not just any planet – MARS! Again, I was a sci-fi geek at a young age, and grew up with the lore about Martian canals, invaders from mars, etc. Not that I expected the Viking landers to find any signs of any kind of life or civilization on our neighbor, but it was still amazing to see photos from such a storied planet, so long considered unreachable.

Then came the Spirit and Opportunity missions, which went into amazing levels of overtime. The Opportunity, I understand, is still chugging along.

So I tried to think of the Curiosity landing as… routine. No big deal, we’re just landing yet another rover on Mars.  Unfortunately, that set a paradox of some kind going in my brain – the very idea of attempting to pass off a Mars landing as routine was in itself staggering and firing all kinds of geek-triggers in my programming.  If Mars landings actually did become routine, that would be AWESOME, right?  Particularly when I learned of all the incredible maneuvers that had to be made to drop something the size of a frickin’ Smart Car (actually, slightly larger) on the surface of a planet that’s so far away it would be humming along for a quarter of an hour before we discovered its fate due to the slowness of the speed of light.

Talk about a programming job to get the AI right…

Watching the tense control room and the reports as it made its way down to the planet surface, chute deploying, heat shield separating, rockets firing, a SKY HOOK lowering the mobile laboratory down from a rocket-ship before it separated and rocketed off a safe distance away … it was amazing. I’ll admit, part of my fascination was concerned that this project was going to end badly. There were so many opportunities for things to go wrong with such a complex sequence.

And then the first pictures came through. They weren’t particularly remarkable by themselves: the landscape isn’t very different from what the Viking landers sent back to us in 1976. But dang if these didn’t seize my imagination. Close-up views of another part of alien world…

Sometimes it just takes something like that to remind me that in spite of the fact that we’ve got plenty of problems and don’t get along to well much of the time, we live in a really cool age, and that humanity can do some pretty awesome things sometimes.

The universe can be a really cool place. We need to keep on dreaming.

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • DGM said,

    Question from somebody who doesn’t follow this stuff: why are the photos black-&-white? With all the expense already involved in putting a mobile laboratory on another planet I doubt NASA decided to skimp on decent cameras.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – I was wondering that myself. But as the first image sent was actually a 64×64 thumbnail image, I assumed it was not a problem with the camera, but actually the very limited bandwidth that restricted it when it was trying to send the images within the time window when the orbiter could pass it back along or something.

    But it seems like the *real* reason is that those are secondary cameras – the main camera is on a mast that is still tucked away for landing. It has to raise the mast to start taking the quality images, and as everything moves slowly on the rover (gotta conserve power!), that will be a little bit. But new, color photos will be forthcoming!

  • Groboclown said,

    I don’t think I’ll be as excited as I was when Pathfinder / Sojourner landed on Mars. I was working with (note: not for) NASA at the time with the ISS at Johnson Space Center (note: not Jet Propulsion Labs), but it was still a very, very big deal.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I imagine that would be dang tough to beat… 😉

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    A first color photo is here, taken through a dirty dust cover, so it’s still very murky):

  • Xenovore said,

    It’s actually some very impressive stuff! I was watching the NASA animation of the landing and thinking “That thing is about the size of my Subaru! And they got it all the way to the surface of Mars in one piece… Hell yeah!” =)