Anyone who is familiar with the public transport system (specifically busses) in the UK will be aware of a phrase not unlike the title of this posting. ‘You wait for half an hour (for a bus) then three come along all at once’.
An observer of the planet Mars may well have something similar to say today. The virtually non-existent atmosphere of that once earth-like planet has been devoid of anything other than passing space dust and solar winds for around four billion years. Then this morning the third probe or satellite from earth arrived at the planet to continue the challenging task of charting the surface. Certainly a major step-change in the level of investigation of this close cousin to the Earth.
NASA Mars rover
The first and arguably most challenging arrival was that of the NASA rover dropped by ‘sky hook’ to start mapping the martial terrain some 25 months ago. In the time it has been on the planet it has already exceeded expectations in terms of the range travelled, terrain with which it has coped and the reliability of its build and instrumentation.
It’s hard to imagine that the motherboard controlling this rover has more computing power in it’s compact design than was provided by the entire computer systems for the first moon landing. The pace of change in technology and computer sciences has transformed the art of the possible since the Apollo missions.
The rover will continue mapping the geological and microbiological potential of the red planet for the next few months providing an insight into the capability of mars to support life of any kind. Although no findings have been released by NASA at the time of writing this article, I suspect scientists can’t fail to be pleased with the wealth of data captured from this technological marvel. It’s hard to imagine that the constant flow of data being captured wouldn’t lead to some major advanced in our understanding of Mars and the solar system.
Indian Mars Orbiter
The second of the arrivals at the red planet was from India who chose Mars to prove their capability at some significant reputational risk.
The Indian orbiter is undertaking a complementary task to the NASA lander mapping the entire planning with particular emphasis on surface features, morphology, mineralogy and analysis of what remains of the Martian atmosphere. It is believed that Mars was once similar to Earth with a habitable surface, rich atmosphere and magnetic field. Understanding what happened to change this to the barren rocky surface it is today may be assisted by the Indian probe.
The flight by India hasn’t been without its critics. The country is one of the largest recipients of aid from first world donors to feed and educate the entire population. Many raised questions as to the sense in spending billions on building a reputation for a credible space programme whilst those problems still exist. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular issue, it’s certainly a hugely impressive debut for any nation to successfully arrive and orbit their satellite around Mars.
The Maven Orbiter
The third arrival as of today is NASA’s Maven orbiter. This successfully entered orbit around Mars on 21st September and will begin to analyse the planet’s upper atmosphere. It appears that even after billions of years the remnants of the once flourishing atmosphere are still leaking away and further exposing Mars to the impacts of the solar winds.
The combination of the data gathered by these three orbiters/probes will hopefully go a long way to understand the impacts of planetary atmospherics, including (potentially) some greater understanding of how climate change may be influenced by solar winds on earth.
The ultimate stated aim of NASA and others is to move towards a human colony on Mars. However, for me this is just as much a triumph of computer science, engineering and cooperation. Thirty years ago the idea of sharing data from a variety of competing national space programmes would have been nearly unthinkable.
Imagine you were one of those watching the moon landings nearly half a century ago. Could you have any idea that this progress would happen in the intervening period ? Similarly, what further progress and opportunities for exploration and learning will emerge over the next 50 years. It may be the first time we have put three satellites in orbit in Mars – but I suspect this is just the start of much more to come.