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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Brain training: exposing the myth behind cognitive-enhancement games

A new study indicates that any benefits gained from brain games may be down to the placebo effect.

If you’ve ever searched for a quick-fix to mental lethargy, it’s likely that you’ve browsed through your smartphone app store to take a look at the latest offerings of brain-training games.

I certainly have. These games have been designed to sharpen people’s mental acuity, while offering “scientifically proven” means for improving IQs; through a variety of mini-games and careful documentation of improvements to intelligence parameters, people would wield the tools needed to craft the desired, smarter minds that the apps promise.

And the market for them has showed no sign of slowing down. In the space of a few years, the demand for the apps has made the industry a billion-dollar one, with growth expected to continue. A couple of the most popular apps have included Lumosity, a web-based program boasting more than 50m users seeking to “improve memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing and problem solving”, and mobile-based Peak, whose similar goals and striking visuals entice potential users.

Though the apps have had huge amounts of success, there is a new body of research emerging to suggest that the successes may not be as a result of the games themselves, but because of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a dummy treatment or process can cause significant changes in a person – simply because that person believes the placebo (posing as a real treatment) will help them. With medication, it can be the mere presentation of a sugar pill disguised as a medicine which can cause a patient to get better. And in the case of apps and games, it seems that anything which promises users cognitive benefit, is more likely to do so.

In a study entitled “Placebo effects in cognitive training” published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that participants who engaged in brain-training games for a single, one hour session showed improvements in IQ by up to ten points, but only if they believed the games would benefit them.

The group of cognitive scientists from George Mason University, Virginia, set up the experiment in a particular way to determine whether or not the placebo effect was involved.

50 participants were recruited, after two different posters asking people to sign up to a study were plastered around campus: one labelled “brain training & cognitive enhancement” and the other “email today & participate in a study”. The rewards for the former promised boosts in intelligence, while rewards for the latter granted study credits. Unknown to participants, however, was that both tests were the same, meaning any resulting changes to IQ were as a result of what participants were telling themselves about the tests.

The tests centred around the engagement of working memory and other factors to impact fluid intelligence – a type of intelligence which revolves around the application of logic and reason, independent of acquired knowledge. Those who chose to sign up to the “brain training & cognitive enhancement” study, aka the placebo study, were the ones to show remarkable gains in IQ after completing a post-brain games IQ test; gains of five to ten IQ points being made. Those who signed up for the control showed no signs of improvement.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, researcher and co-author of the study Cyrus Foroughi said: “Placebos are very pervasive and they have to be controlled for in a tremendous number of fields. This field is no different. So we put together the study to actually test whether expectation for a positive effect can lead to a positive outcome.”

Within the scientific community, frustration had already mounted as a result of the falsely promoted uses of brain games, particularly as tools to reverse age-related, cognitive-faltering illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Overstated claims through advertising were enough to encourage scientists to sign an open letter in 2014, condemning the inaccurately purported benefits of brain training games. Earlier this year, Lumosity was fined $2m by the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving consumers with “unfounded claims”.

The recent findings strengthen this position, as the effects of cognitive training games seem less to do with the content of the games themselves, and more to do with what users tell themselves will happen after a session of, brain-training puzzle bonanzas. That’s not to say the games themselves don’t offer some benefit – it’s just that further clarification is needed to understand what they exactly contribute to, with the placebo effect factored in.

While scientists expand on their research to pinpoint the real effects of brain games, it seems for now that the best options to keep our brains active are the ones we are most familiar with: learn a language, do some exercise, or maybe just read a book.