By Gary J. Remal
Whatever happens when Earth’s most advanced, car-sized Mars explorer slams into the red planet’s thin atmosphere tonight, a Bay State man will be riding along on the giant rover’s dangerous journey as it skips, shudders and plops onto the Martian surface — at least in spirit.
Christopher Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, a Beverly-based nonprofit aimed at promoting and expanding the technical frontiers necessary for human travel to Earth’s sister planet, is in Pasadena, Calif., the Curiosity rover’s home base, ready to celebrate a safe landing.
“Everybody will be quite excited,” Carberry said from Planetfest, a conference hosting 1,500 people for one of hundreds of so-called landing parties being celebrated around the world early tomorrow at 1:30 a.m. Eastern time. “I’m sure there will be pandemonium.”
But between now and then, the 2,000-pound rover — which Carberry describes as a small SUV packed with high-tech scientific instruments — must first undergo a gauntlet of fire and speed that NASA has dubbed, “Seven Minutes of Terror.” Explore Mars has put together a website, getcurious.com, that is a clearinghouse of information about Curiosity, including NASA’s video illustration of the landing procedure.
“It comes into the atmosphere with a heat shield that slows it down, then it deploys a supersonic parachute that slows it down some more,” Carberry explained. “Then a bank of retrorockets that the rover sits beneath fire and it’s lowered down on a crane.”
The sequence seems complex, and it is, Carberry said. Just one step needs to go wrong to sack the decade-long venture.
But the Martian atmosphere is too thin to support a traditional landing sequence. And lowering the vehicle by cable allows a softer, safer landing if NASA can pull it off.
“It’s never been tried before. It’s a very unique landing,” he said. “But if you lower it with the retrorockets it would throw up so much debris it could damage the rover.”
Curiosity brings a lot to its game. Like an NFL lineman, the $2.5 billion, six-wheeled robot is tough and agile, heavy but able to cruise just about anywhere and still take the hits, which could allow it to unlock one of the greatest secrets of the universe, said Carberry, who is pushing to see men on Mars by 2030.
“It is by far the most capable of anything we’ve ever sent,” the 44-year-old Beverly resident said in a telephone interview with the Herald yesterday from California. “It’s the first new robot that can go over anything, and that’s good because this is much more rugged terrain.
“If we really want to do the science we’ve wanted to do for 50 years, we have to build something that can take it,” Carberry said, excitement spilling from his voice. “If successful, it could show if Mars was capable of sustaining life in the past, or, as some people surmise, that there could be life on Mars now. It would be microbial life, not life as H.G. Wells wrote about. But even microbial life would be one of the most significant discoveries in the history of humanity.”