Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Curiosity is on the way to Mars. A perfect launch. On the NASA Mars Space Lab website a clock ticks down the time to landing. I looked just now. 242 days, 16 hours, 64 minutes, 42 seconds.

Think about that. The trip will take the better part of a year, and NASA predicts touchdown to the second. Well, sort of.

Of course, there's lots of tricks that have to happen just right for Curiosity to get there safely. This new Martian rover is a lot bigger than its spunky predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, that bounced onto the Martial surface swathed in air bags. Curiosity is the size of a small car. It will have to be set down more gently. With untried technologies.

But what you really want to think about is this.

Imagine the Sun is a basketball on the goal line of a football field. The Earth would be a pin head on the 30 yard line, one of those sewing pins with a round plastic head. Mars would be an even smaller pinhead on the 50 yard line.

Except they are not just sitting there. They are in motion around the Sun, sometimes on opposite sides of the Sun. That infinitely tiny car-sized package is blasted off of the first pinhead, chases the other pinhead in its orbit, a pinhead that is revolving on its axis, and lands smack on the flat floor of a designated crater (see pic above) exactly 242 days, 16 hours, 53 minutes and 18 seconds from now.

We tend to take this stuff for granted. We've become blasé.

Little Opportunity is still exploring Mars, nearly eight years after landing -- thirty times longer that its planned mission. Opportunity and Curiosity will be too far apart to make a rendezvous, but wouldn't it be sweet if they could meet and shake robotic hands on the surface of Mars, like Livingston and Stanley in darkest Africa.