Friday, September 14, 2012

A penny for your thoughts



There was a time, for over half a century, when Ireland was home to the largest telescope in the world. After an Irish summer that gave us only rare glimpses of the heavens, one has to wonder how often the Earl of Rosse managed to see the stars.

Well, no matter. I returned to New England and cloudless skies just in time to catch the spectacular conjunction of Venus and the Moon in the pre-dawn dark, with Jupiter presiding from on high. And I was jet-lagged enough to be awake for the show.

Meanwhile, Tom put me onto this image from Curiosity on Mars, a view of the calibration target for Curiosity's camera. What stuck him as wonderfully whimsical is the 1909 Lincoln penny. A penny on Mars! Note the specks of Martian dust on the close-up. Click to enlarge.

This is a mission that will cost $2.5 billion. At that price, it is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. What a gamble! During the seven minute descent of the craft onto the Martian surface the spacecraft fired 76 charges, adopted six configurations, and slowed from 6 kilometers per second to -- to a standstill. Presumably, if any one of those 76 charges had misfired, we wouldn't be looking at a penny on Mars.

An almost unbelievable feat of engineering.

The penny, of course, is extraneous to the mission. But you know what? If the goal of the mission had been to show that human knowledge and skill could put a penny on Mars, that would still be worth $2.5 billion (he said, tongue only partly in cheek). I'd rather be looking at Honest Abe in Gale Crater than photos of the ruckus and mayhem that seems to occupy so much human energy and treasure here on Earth.