August 3, 2012
You have to give it to Mike Malin. He tried.
A couple of years ago, the planetary scientist who’s arguably the world’s foremost expert on Martian photography tried to convince NASA to include 3D video capability on the Curiosity lander that’s scheduled to touch down on Mars just after 1:30 am Eastern Monday morning. The 3D version of Malin’s Mastcam camera, as proposed by Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron, would have given us a “you-are-there” feeling of riding along with the rover as it trekked around the planet.
For defensible reasons, NASA decided not to include it.
But another Malin-built camera called MARDI — which, amazingly, was also initially axed by NASA cost-cutters — survived (barely — Malin had to put in his own money), and will film the rover’s descent as it drops to the Martian surface. Here’s NASA’s description of how it will work:
During the final few minutes of Curiosity’s flight to the surface of Mars, the Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, will record a full-color video of the ground below. This will provide the Mars Science Laboratory team with information about the landing site and its surroundings, to aid interpretation of the rover’s ground-level views and planning of initial drives. Hundreds of the images taken by the camera will show features smaller than what can be discerned in images taken from orbit. The video will also give fans worldwide an unprecedented sense of riding a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.
MARDI will record the video on its own 8-gigabyte flash memory at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame. Thumbnails and a few samples of full-resolution frames will be transmitted to Earth in the first few days after landing….The full video — available first from the thumbnails in YouTube-like resolution and later in full detail — will begin with a glimpse of the heat shield falling away from beneath the rover. The first views of the ground will cover an area several kilometers (a few miles) across. Successive frames taken as the vehicle descends will close in and cover successively smaller areas. The video will likely nod up and down to fairly large angles owing to parachute-induced oscillations.
Many of the images may also be blurry, due to the motion of the camera. But hey, it’s video of a Mars landing, people!
I totally get that NASA has to draw the line somewhere at what to pack for its Mars expeditions, and Curiosity‘s managers struggled mightily even to stay within a bloated budget of $2.5 billion. But watch this video of the Huygens spacecraft descending to Titan’s surface in 2005, and tell me you don’t want to see the same thing (or hopefully better) on Mars.
August 6 update: Here’s a lo-res, incomplete version of the MARDI descent video. A much better version will eventually be released.
November 28, 2011
Add two more stripes to this ingenious chart showing all the attempts over the past 50 years to send spacecraft to Mars. Let’s hope that the stripe for the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory, which launched successfully on Saturday, reaches all the way to the surface of the planet.
Sadly, the stripe for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars spacecraft, currently incommunicado in Earth orbit, appears doomed to end at the outside, “fail” ring, which may also spell the end of the country’s planetary program.
The apparent demise of Phobos-Grunt got me reading up on the history of Russian Mars exploration, looking for stories from happier days. I hadn’t known about PrOP-M, the first rover (or maybe crawler is a better word) launched to Mars. It ended up failing , too, but it would have been fun to watch had it succeeded.
By 1971 the Soviets had already landed one Lunokhod rover on the moon’s surface. The 10-pound PROP-M, included as a payload on the Mars 3 lander launched in May 1971, was much more modest. After Mars 3 touched down, the rover, attached to a 15-meter umbilical cord, was designed to shuffle away from the lander on two ski-like contraptions. The video below (queued up here at the 3:51 mark) shows how the rover maneuvered itself. Unfortunately, Mars 3 went silent immediately after it touched down, and PROP-M was never heard from again. NASA didn’t land its own rover on Mars until 1997, when Sojourner rolled off of the Mars Pathfinder.
When Curiosity touches down on Mars next August, it should tip its electronic head in the direction of PROP-M, wherever it lies on the unforgiving plains of Mars.
November 4, 2011
Mars has not been a happy place for the Russian space program. The nation’s attempts to explore the Red Planet, going back more than 50 years, have produced a long litany of failures. The most recent misfire came 15 years ago, when the instrument-laden Mars 96 probe, instead of heading out into the solar system, burned up in the atmosphere and scattered pieces over Chile and Bolivia.
That crash effectively put the Russian planetary program out of business — until now.
On Tuesday a Zenit rocket is scheduled to lift off from Kazakhstan to start the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft on its 10-month voyage to Mars. If all goes well, on Valentine’s Day of 2013, after several months of circling the planet, the lander will touch down on the surface of the moon Phobos to start collecting samples of dirt (“grunt” in Russian). Four days later, a return vehicle will lift off in the moon’s low gravity and bring the samples back to Earth.
We’ll have more details on the Phobos-Grunt mission next week. Meanwhile, here’s some background from Anatoly Zak, the author of our 2008 article, and an animation (with Russian subtitles) from the Roscosmos space agency that shows how it’s all supposed to go.
October 13, 2011
Cue the Lawrence of Arabia theme. Actually, I prefer the soundtrack that the Mars Exploration Rover team used for this time-lapse video showing Opportunity’s 13-mile trek from Victoria crater to Endeavour crater. They took accelerometer data from the rover and converted it to audible sound, which gets louder when the robot is moving over rocky ground, and quieter when it’s crossing sand dunes. The trip to Endeavour took three years, compressed here to three minutes. Here’s a view from Opportunity‘s navigation camera, taken just last Monday.