NASA lands nuclear-powered, laser-armed, one-tonne rover on Mars

The Curiosity rover has been travelling for 10 months and made a safe touchdown this morning.

At 6:30am BST, NASA's Curiosity rover touched down on Mars, making it the seventh successful attempt to land a man-made object on the planet, and the largest such object yet.

Following its launch from Cape Canaveral in November last year, the mission has covered the 563 million kilometer distance without concern, but the most dangerous aspect of the trip was always going to be the last seven minutes of the descent to Mars. The Martian atmosphere is thin enough that it isn't capable of slowing objects travelling at interplanetary velocity down enough for them to make a safe landing, while being thick enough that the friction is capable of doing serious damage to an unprotected craft.

Once the rover hit the atmosphere, it had to execute a complicated series of manouvers, first deploying a massive parachute, then rocket thrusters, and then, at the very end, hovering just above the surface and lowering the car-sized rover down on nylon strings. And it had to do all of this without any aid from the control room on Earth, due to the 14 minutes it takes for radio signals from Mars to reach earth. So by the time we heard that the rover had hit the atmosphere, it had actually been sitting on the planet – dead or alive – for seven minutes.

NASA's video explaining the "seven minutes of terror" – unfortunately officially called "EDL", for "entry, descending, landing" – conveys the sheer scale of the challenge:

Now that it has arrived, the rover's first task is to explore Gale crater, its landing site. The crater contains a number of interesting geological features, including what appears to be a 5km high mountain formed out of sedimentary rock, which would make it one of the largest artifacts of running water on Mars.

But that preliminary mission is unlikely to be the rover's only one. NASA's increasingly successful missions to send rovers to Mars have been typified by the flexibility which the mobile design offers. The Pathfinder mission, which deposited a lander (a stationary craft) and a rover (named Sojourner) on Mars in 1997, was intended to last a week to a month, but ended up returning usable data for three. The follow-up rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004 with 90 days of planned experiments. Spirit eventually got stuck in late 2009 and stopped sending signals back to Earth in 2010, while its twin Opportunity is still active, 3,026 days after its mission was supposed to end.

But Curiosity is a different scale of mission – literally. While Sojourner was 65cm long and weighed 10.5kg, and Spirit and Opportunity 1.6m and 180kg, Curiosity is over 3m long and weighs almost a tonne. Rather than being powered by solar panels, which runs the risk of outages during dust storms and the Martian night, it contains a plutonium battery, which generates heat to be turned into electricity. It also has a laser which can burn holes in rocks from up to 7 meters away, in case of attack to analyse the chemical composition of the planet, and sensors which detect visible light, x-rays, neutrons and ultraviolet radiation, all for science. In essence, NASA has landed a nuclear power, laser-armed SUV on Mars for one fifth the cost of the Olympics. Oh, and it tweets.

 

The Mars rover family. Pictured, clockwise from bottom left: models of Sojourner, Spirit/Opportunity, two human males, and Curiosity. Photograph: NASA

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.