The first images come in; small thumbnails from one of the HazCams. It shows much dark, but for us die hards, that were there when Spirit and Opportunity arrived, we know what these images mean: soil under our wheels. We have arrived.
We are on powered descent
I can’t walk around as I would like
typing and walking is not something that I can do at the same time
I feel full of restless energy
We are on the ground
We must be
It is 10.31
All has been going well
at JPL everyone is dancing
the whole room of planetfest is loudly cheering
Another rover is on Mars
We have another success!
At JPL a room all dressed in the blue curiosity landing shirts goes through the steps is all we see
Finally: 10:20. By now a fever is palpable in the room. We are waiting for things to unfold with abated breath. This has to work! No second chances. Friends from the 400 people Austin landing party phone me to will away some waiting time. Too much is going on at both ends of the phoneline as all this waiting time is making us loud and jittery.
Not much longer now. Curiosity will touch down on Mars on 10:17 PM, but we on Earth won’t know about it until 14 minutes later, as that is how long it will take before the data reach us here on Earth. I have a hard time visualising this. Ofcourse we are all familiar with the delay in communications between us and a reporter in say Sidney, Australia. And we, at least technically, know that our communications go 36,000 kilometers up and and down to get from us to Australia. But to truly get the time delay of 156,000 kilometers between us and Curiosity at Mars is hard.
10:21 the first beeps are coming in to let us know each step in the Entry, Descent and Landing sequence.
First Curiosity send us the data of the sequence directly, then Earth sinks below the horizon on Mars and the Mars Odyssey satellite takes over. Mars Odyssey will relay the beeps send up from Curiosity immediately to us. And us in this case means the Deep Space Network in Australia. Again half way around our own planet. At the end of the landing sequence Mars Odyssey looses the direct link to Curiosity as she sinks below the horizon on Mars.
By now we witness interviews at Jet Propulsion Laboratories with Emily Lakdawalla. Apparently the feed from JPL to Planetfest works. That is good to know. We also just all waived (and screamed) at the people in Times Square New York. Another direct connection, as with the landing party in Sidney, Australia.
By now my friends back home are gathering at Noordwijk, seat of the European Space Agency’s ESTEC facility. Soon they will have technical talks and enjoy a breakfast, as it is 6:30 a.m. in the Netherlands.
The room is really full now at Planetfest, and there is a second room with a feed of what is happening in the main room as the Planetary Society tries to accommodate as many revellers as they can. The corridors of the Convention center are devoid of people, when I step out for a sip of water. Slowly the time counts down on the countdown clock I have pulled up on my tablet.
I hope time will be kind to Curiosity over her 98 weeks primary mission ( a Martian year) With her power coming from a small nuclear power source (ceramic, no health hazard during launch) she could do 14 years as that is the minimum life time of her power source. It is likely her wheels, robot arm, drill and brush will be worn out before her power runs out. Will Curiosity give us as many extra mission years as the Spirit and Opportunity did?
But first let her please land safely
There is a 45 minute pause in the Planetfest programming. To have us eat dinner. Do we need food? Perhaps, but far more we need this landing to succeed. This nutty way of putting Curiosity on Mars. Although, is this sky-crane idea anymore nutty really than bouncing rovers inside 24 man-high airbags?
So far landing on Mars has meant using one of two methods: Either you landed your craft on three legs, while having the body of your spacecraft high up between those three legs to prevent mars boulders from accidentally piercing it. That sounds safe and easy, but in reality it isn’t. Having the weight on the top of your three legs make that spacecraft top-heavy which increases the risk that the spacecraft at landing will topple.
The other method is bouncing your spacecraft all folded up inside four triangles protected by large airbags. After the final bounce you have to hope nothing shook loose on any of your instruments. Also you have to pray that the lander, when it unfolds three of its four flaps, will find itself far enough from Mars rocks to fold all the way open and in doing so give the rover folded inside that landing vehicle a ramp to drive off unto Mars. And honestly when have you bounced your laptop 20 or more times and expected it to be still operational?
The Sky-crane landing method gives us the capability to land a far larger rover on Mars. It can be larger and heavier as this method puts it directly on Mars. No need to drive it off a ramp. Ready for use, right there and then.
Ready we are.
2 more hours to wait…
In the last few hours the excitement (and yes, also the tension) has been building in the auditorium where the Planetfest is being celebrated. Step by step those involved with this Mars mission on an ever increasing level in engineering, science and management have graced us with their presence. Educating us about so many aspects of this mission. That engineers want a place on Mars that is smooth and devoid of large rocks, so basically boring. Engineers hate rocks. However scientist love rocks as they are sending rovers to Mars to do exciting things, therefore a boring landscape is not what scientist are looking for. It took 6 years and 5 intense workshops to finally select Gale Crater as landings site.
We in the audience are fascinated by all these facts, but what we want is the time to run faster and make it 10:20 P.M. to end our wait; however pleasantly and educationally filled by talks by Charles Bolden (NASA administrator), Ann Drayan (widow of Carl Sagan and a planetary scientist in her own right) and Bill Nye.
We want to see our hopes be confirmed. We want the start of at least 2 years of roving Mars. We want to see images, panoramas. We are ready.
Bring it on JPL; give us Curiosity.