Sunday, September 09, 2012

Curiosity and the Red Planet

Earthly ode to a red planet

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:4, KJV)

            I've been perusing the photos coming back from the Mars rover Curiosity lately, as you may have done as well. If you haven't and would like to, click here.
            What genius does it require to dream up and manufacture a device like Curiosity, guide it to a distant planet, drive it with radio signals from earth and cause it to send photographs back? I made a slingshot once and thought I had done something wonderful!
            Curiosity was launched 9 months ago—November 25, 2011. The Canadian Space Agency website describes the calculations necessary to “hit” another planet as follows: “It's a bit like throwing a dart at a moving target, where you extrapolate where the target will be to ensure that the projectile meets the target.” That’s really simplified, considering that Earth and Mars are both rotating and revolving in very different orbits at the same time, and that the dart in this case has 9 months to travel! Shooting a flying duck from a flatcar in a hurtling train might be more like it.
            In the course of a day, the temperature on Mars can oscillate between -128o and +27o Celsius. It's atmosphere is 90% carbon dioxide. It's windier than Saskatchewan; the CO2 tears across the surface of the red planet at an average speed of 200 KPH. After spending time on Mars, a week in Antarctica would constitute a day at the beach.
            In the grand scale of things, is Mars near or far away? When it's nearest to us—when we're both on the same side of the sun, as it were—Mars is some 56,000,000 Km away. It's considerably farther away than that at the moment; it takes 20 minutes for a command to “turn left, you stupid robot” to reach Curiosity and another 20 minutes before you know he's actually done it. That seems far.
            But considering the approximate diameter (at this moment; check it again tomorrow) of an expanding universe (an estimated 92,000,000,000 light years) Mars, earth—indeed the sun and all its planets—exist on the head of a pin, as it were. That makes Mars seem very, very close.
            As regards space travel, we may have invented the wheel but we're a long way from perfecting the automobile.
            The recent death of Neil Armstrong—first man to set foot on the moon—and the landing of Curiosity on Mars are intriguingly coincidental. It's said that Armstrong became very pensive and somewhat reclusive after his trip to the moon and I have to wonder what happens to someone who has seen the earth from a great distance, has gazed into the blackness of infinite space while standing on an alien planet and has been led thereby to reconsider whatever philosophy of life he held to that point.
            Surely one couldn't miss the tenuousness of the miracle that is conscious life in a cold, material universe. Or could one?
            I began with the Psalm, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Expressed more colloquially, “My home is situated on the back of a louse on a hair of a mangy dog somewhere on the far side of nowhere?” I'm wondering if such sentiments made Armstrong pensively quiet as he grew old.
            I don't need to know; I'm just curious.

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