By Marty Russell
With all due respect to South Korean archer Im Dong-Hyun who has already managed to set a new world record in the 2012 Olympics by hitting a target the size of a grapefruit from a distance of roughly three-fourths the length of a football field despite being legally blind, an American team is gearing up this weekend after years of training to hit a target about 12 miles in circumference from a distance of roughly 151 million miles. With a car.
Around midnight Sunday night/Monday morning, the latest, and perhaps last for a long time, NASA mission to Mars will begin its descent to the surface of the Red Planet after a journey of more than 350 million miles that began last November. Its target is the foot of a mountain. Not Mt. Olympus (Olympus Mons) the 15-mile high (think three Mt. Everests stacked on top of each other) predominate feature of the Martian landscape and tallest volcano in the solar system, but a more earth-sized mountain known as Mt. Sharp, which happens to sit in the middle of a crater that is also one of the lowest points on the Martian surface.
The mission is to land a nuclear-powered rover about the size and weight of a small car at the base of the mountain in what is known as Gale Crater and then drive up the mountain to examine the sedimentary layers of rock from the oldest at the bottom to the newest at the top to search for signs of past life on Mars.
But first it has to get there, which will be no small task. The team of engineers will have to first slow it from an approaching speed of 13,000 mph to about 1 mph as it hits the surface. Because of its size and weight, the mission won’t be able to use airbags as previous rovers did to cushion the fall. The rover, aptly named Curiosity, will use parachutes and a hovering mothership to lower it by cable the last few feet onto the surface in what the team back on Earth is referring to as, “seven minutes of terror.”
That’s because a thousand things could go wrong, any of which could result in the loss of not only a $2.5 billion mission but could leave a pile of radioactive debris on the Martian surface. Not only that, but the team won’t know if it has succeeded until about 14 minutes later because of the time it takes the radio signals to travel from Mars. Talk about an Olympic tape delay.
If successful, the rover is equipped with a laser capable of vaporizing rock from a distance of up to 25 feet. And we always thought it would be the Martians coming here to do that to us.
So set your alarms for a real Olympic event. No tickets required and no bloody fish and chips.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.