NASA’s Curiosity rover, launched last November, is now less than two weeks away from Mars. There had been some fears that Odyssey, a satellite orbiting Mars, would not be lined up to watch Curiosity’s descent, but it has been nudged into the necessary orbit.
Curiosity is the largest rover ever sent to Mars, and the viral “7 Minutes of Terror” video makes its complicated descent seem impossible, especially when you also read that over 60% of Mars missions have failed. However, many of those failures were in the early days and/or Soviet and/or didn’t even succeed in leaving Earth, and according to Wikipedia rover missions have been 80% successful.
For now I’m optimistic this one will work. You can get charming updates from @MarsCuriosity like “Ground antennas of Deep Space Network aimed my way” and “Power up! Today my two batteries are charging to 100%.”
Earlier this week, NASA successfully tested a hypersonic inflatable heat shield. You can read the details here, but the gist is it’s an innovation that should make it easier to do things like…. land on Mars.
Meanwhile, the private space sector is accelerating. SpaceX hogged the headlines a couple months ago, but there are plenty of other companies moving far and fast. Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining project announced with great fanfare three months ago, has teamed up with Virgin Galactic to launch its asteroid-scouting telescopes into orbit. I thought I had read PR was planning to launch a single telescope for this purpose, but this article talks about a “series of space telescopes.”
For its own part, Virgin Galactic has announced plans for a new satellite launcher called LauncherOne. They also said that SpaceShipTwo (a “space plane” for tourists) is passing tests and should be ready for “powered flight” by the end of the year, with deposits from over 500 “future astronauts.”
As speculative projects begin to get established and established projects begin to come to fruition, new speculative projects are continuing to pop up. The latest is Mars One, a plan to set up a one-way human Mars colony by 2023. Round trips to outer space are way more than twice as hard and costly as one-way trips, because you have to bring all the return fuel on the first trip plus the hardware to lift off again, but one-way trips naturally aren’t as appealing. Still, Mars One thinks they can find enough takers to do it, tentatively hoping to fund it by turning it into a reality show.
That sounds a little far-fetched to me, but they already have a reasonable set of plans, and anything is possible. The main point, of course, is that these kinds of ideas and opportunities are being created at an impressive pace as technology, capital, and willpower converge, and it seems likely that at least some of these far-fetched plans will succeed as humans continue to innovate and learn from their failures. It’s still a very exciting time to be alive.
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