Perhaps the most popular cosmic story of the past decade was that Pluto was no longer a planet. Everyone shared it, and everyone knew about it. However, on a list of the most important scientific discoveries of the past decade, "Pluto is no longer a planet" ranks just under "everything else" and just above nothing.
This evening, however, at about 10:30 PST, something pretty incredible will likely occur, and it has nothing to do with the Olympics. Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, is supposed to land on the red planet tonight or today, depending on where you happen to be on Earth. Now, I don't claim to be an astrophysicist. Just a doctor, and a mister, and a blog. But I urge everyone to care about what's happening on Mars today/tonight. It's kind of ridiculously exciting, for at least several reasons.
5 It's Incredibly Difficult and Incredibly Far Away, and It Might Not Even Work
Curiosity has been flying toward Mars for almost a year now. That's how long it takes to get there from Earth because, you know, it's Mars. That journey is actually the easy part, even though it alone is impressive. I mean, we shot a robot from a moving object to another moving object that is at a varying distance of 35 to 235 million miles away. Hey, science: Cool.
The hard part for Curiosity is landing, though. It's terrifyingly hard. From the atmosphere to the surface, it has seven minutes to go from 13,000 mph to zero. It sounds tough, and it is. That's why the descent of the rover is referred to as the "Seven Minutes of Terror," a phrase my girlfriend's been using for years in reference to my lovemaking. You owe me thousands of very sad dollars, NASA.
The above video describes the entire complicated process of Curiosity actually landing on the surface of Mars. Here's a non-video version, with significantly less dramatic music.
Bum bum buuuuuuuuum!
And because it takes so long for a signal to reach Earth from Mars, we won't even know if it worked for 14 minutes. For seven minutes after the Seven Minutes of Terror, Curiosity could be completely destroyed. Or completely and incredibly on the surface of Mars, already at work.
In a world that's currently entranced by people swimming for a few minutes, or running for a few more minutes, I can't help but think that there will be people missing out on what is currently one of the most exciting races of, well, the human race. Each nation is cheering on their best athletes to not fail in passing a finish line 100 meters away, when tonight the globe should be cheering for a one-ton robot to not fail in landing on something 60 million kilometers away. We should all hold our breaths and be on the edge of our seats for 14 minutes, wondering at the possibilities, and hoping for success.
Yes, I meant literally.
Now, I don't want to belittle the accomplishments of our Olympic athletes. They've worked remarkably hard, and they are certainly the most physically fit of anyone on the planet except, I don't know ... tigers or something? Tigers? Whatever. Regardless, in 2012, fitness is no longer merely physical, and we should be shifting toward the celebration of the mentally fit. Darwin's "survival of the fittest" remains true, but much less in regard to our physical evolution. We have mastered our harsh environments and dangerous predators (like tigers). Our survival on a global level now depends on our collective mental and technological evolution, not on individually being the fastest or strongest.
So let us cheer for a robot today. Let us celebrate its excellence, its possibility of failure, and the incredible task it will undertake for seven minutes. And, hey, if it does fail, I imagine we would enjoy that, too. In our current YouTube culture, who doesn't want to see a one-ton robot fly 50 million miles just to fall flat on its lack of face?
4 But It Might Work!
If Curiosity does fail, I hope that doesn't deter the public too much. The great thing about humanity, and Batman, is that we do not let failure keep us down. We fall so that we may pick ourselves back up. We need to continue testing the limits of invention and exploration and discovery, and learn from our failures so that we may later succeed. And if Curiosity succeeds today? Well, that is still amazing, despite the fact that we have successfully landed rovers before.
The first rover, the Sojourner, landed in 1997. It was expected to last one Earth month, but lasted three. In 2004, Opportunity and Spirit were launched. Their primary mission was to discover water, and they succeeded. Opportunity was planned to last less than 90 days. It has continued functioning for about 3,000 days. Oh, and long before that, we landed on the moon a bunch of times.
Remember me? ... Please?
I guess my point here is ... isn't that all fucking incredible? Like, still? We should be in awe of those accomplishments, and push for more. This lack of awe and interest makes me think of this year's Prometheus, a good movie covered in a bad movie. One of the various problems with the film is that the characters didn't seem to care about the setting in which they were. Specifically, the geologist who was "in it for the money, not the friends." In fact, it was pretty much a problem for everyone but Ripley 2. There was no hint of wonder at all in these people, and I don't know how that's possible. The movie is only set in 2090. Excluding the fact that the crew also finds alien life and structures, they are still light-years away from Earth, on another planet. They are scientists on another planet. I'm sorry, but don't you think that's pretty mind-blowing, Scientist Who's Just In It For The Money, Not The Friends? No one's asking you to be in it to make friends, because no scientist is in it to make friends. Or money? Seriously, aren't you amazed, Fifield from Prometheus?
We are slowly exploring and discovering more about the universe, our galaxy, our solar system, ourselves and our place within it all. There is wonder in the universe that we keep experiencing and discovering, but I'm amazed that there isn't more interest in it, or more money in it. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once pointed out, the money required to send a satellite to Saturn is less than what Americans spend on lip balm in a year. And most lip balms are actually pretty useless. Are we not amazed, or curious enough, to spend lip balm money to continue our discovery? The Curiosity rover's actual name is the Mars Science Laboratory, and I'm going to say that in a different way that will hopefully have more impact: We have a laboratory on Mars. A science laboratory. On the planet Mars.
After a long day of science, just watching the sunset with a Corona. On Mars. Pretty chill. NBD.
And just for the sake of wonder, and the breathtaking successes of humanity, here are a couple more ...
Earth and the moon, from Mars.
Earthrise on the moon.