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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How virtual reality pigs could change the justice system forever

Lawyers in Canda are aiming to defend their client by asking the judge to don a virtual reality headset and experience the life of a pig.

“These are not humans, you dumb frickin' broad.”

Those were the words truck driver Jeffrey Veldjesgraaf said to animal rights activist Anita Krajnc on 22 June 2015 as she gave water to some of the 190 pigs in his slaughterhouse-bound truck. This week, 49-year-old Kranjc appeared at the Ontario Court of Justice charged with mischief for the deed, which she argues was an act of compassion for the overheated animals. To prove this, her lawyers hope to show a virtual reality video of a slaughterhouse to the judge, David Harris. Pigs might not be humans, but humans are about to become pigs.

“The tack that we’ve taken recognises that Anita hasn’t done anything wrong,” said one of her lawyers, James Silver. Along with testimony from environmental and animal welfare experts, her defence hope the virtual reality experience, which is planned for when the trial resumes in October, will allow Harris to understand Kranjc’s point of view. Via the pigs’ point of view.

It’s safe to say that the simulated experience of being a pig in a slaughterhouse will not be a pleasant one. iAnimal, an immersive VR video about the lives of farm animals, launched earlier this year and has already changed attitudes towards meat. But whether or not Harris becomes a vegetarian after the trial is not the most pressing aspect of this case. If the lawyers get their wish to bring a VR headset into the courtroom, they will make legal history.

“Virtual reality is a logical progression from the existing ways in which technology is used to illustrate and present evidence in court,” says Graham Smith, a technology lawyer and partner at the international law firm Bird & Bird.

“Graphics, charts, visualisations, simulations and reconstructions, data-augmented video and other technology tools are already used to assist courts in understanding complex data and sequences of events.”

Researchers have already been looking into the ways VR can be used in courts, with particular focus on recreating crime scenes. In May, Staffordshire University launched a project that aims to “transport” jurors into virtual crime scenes, whilst in 2014 researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland created a 3D reconstruction of a shooting, including the trajectory of a bullet. Although this will help bring to life complex evidence that might be hard to understand or picture in context, the use of VR in this way is not without its flaws.

“Whether a particular aid should be admitted into evidence can give rise to argument, especially in criminal trials involving a jury,” says Smith. “Does the reconstruction incorporate factual assumptions or inferences that are in dispute, perhaps based on expert evidence? Does the reconstruction fairly represent the underlying materials? Is the data at all coloured by the particular way in which it is presented? 

“Would immersion aid a jury's understanding of the events or could it have a prejudicial impact? At its core, would VR in a particular case add to or detract from the court's ability objectively to assess the evidence?”

The potential for bias is worrying, especially if the VR video was constructed from witness testimony, not CCTV footage or other quantitative data. To avoid bias, feasibly both the defence and prosecution could recreate an event from different perspectives. If the jury or judge experience the life of a distressed pig on its way to be slaughtered, should they also be immersed in the life of a sweaty trucker, just trying to do his job and panicked by a protester feeding his pigs an unknown substance from a bottle?

“These are not new debates,” says Smith. “Lawyers are used to tackling these kinds of issues with the current generation of illustrative aids. Before too long they will find themselves doing so with immersive VR.”

It seems safe to trust, then, that legal professionals will readily come up with failsafe guidelines for the use of VR in order to avoid prejudice or bias. But beyond legal concerns, there is another issue: ethics.

In 2009, researchers at the University of Leicester discovered that jurors face trauma due to their exposure to harrowing evidence. “The research confirms that jury service, particularly for crimes against people, can cause significant anxiety, and for a vulnerable minority it can lead to severe clinical levels of stress or the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder,” they wrote.

It’s easy to see how this trauma could be exacerbated by being virtually transported to a scene and watching a crime play out before your eyes. Gamers have already spoken about panic attacks as a result of VR horror games, with Denny Unger, creative director of Cloudhead Games, speculating they could cause heart attacks. A virtual reality murder, however virtual, is still real, and could easily cause similar distress.

Then there is the matter of which crimes get the VR treatment. Would courts allow the jury to be immersed in a VR rape? Despite how harrowing and farfetched that sounds, a virtual reality sexual assault was already screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

For now, legal professionals have time to consider these issues. By October, Kranjc’s lawyers may or may not have been allowed to use VR in court. If they are, they may change legal history. If they’re not, Kranjc may be found guilty, and faces six months in jail or a $5,000 fine. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.