Norman Rockwell-esque Scene in Kyoto: Watching Curiosity Land on Mars
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So the Curiosity Rover just landed successfully on Mars.

In the type of scene that Norman Rockwell would have painted, Anthony and I watched live.... “live”, except that it took 14 minutes for data to travel across space at the speed of light from Mars to the United States, then another second or so to make the trip halfway around the Earth to our house in Kyoto.

My laptop with the live video stream was on the dining-room table while Anthony huddled nearby and I watched from across the sink as I stood in my underwear doing the dishes in the kitchen.

We had watched NASA's “Seven Minutes of Terror” animation that described the incredibly complex method used to land the large car-sized rover safely and without raising a huge dustball, so we knew the basic milestones, and could cheer with Mission Command each time a milestone success was announced. “We are under powered flight” got me choked up a bit, as the probability that it would work even if it got that far seemed pretty small. The whole contraption was under powered flight for only a short time as it got to within a five-story building's height above the surface, then in a “skycrane” maneuver, the powered craft lowered the car-like rover gently to the surface before the rover cut loose and the powered craft blasted itself clear.

When I first heard about this planed landing method, I mentioned it to someone who replied “That has too many moving parts to ever work”. That's was a reasonable observation, I thought, until I happened to have watched the 1998 HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” with Anthony while he was in the hospital last month, and realized the amazing complexity of the “lunar-orbit rendezvous” method used by the Apollo missions 30+ years ago, which actually did work.

It's all rocket science to me... but Author Clark's third law certainly holds true: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Minutes after landing, the rover sent back a tiny thumbnail image:

It's not much — one can apparently see the edge of a wheel, showing that the rover is right-side-up — but a million things had to work perfectly over the last eight months for it to have been sent and received successfully, so in that sense it's truly amazing.

(Forty minutes later, Anthony has already made his first LEGO mimic of the lander.)

Here's a larger version of that first image that came in later:


today's xkdc comic

All 4 comments so far, oldest first...

That was incredible! We’re on mars again! And this time we brought a nuclear power plant, we’re going to smash the last rovers’ lifespans!

— comment by Daniel on August 6th, 2012 at 3:25pm JST (5 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

I think there must have been many people watching this. At the school where I work this event was streamed to the Science Classes live and as I watched I was reminded of a time when I was their age and the world stopped and watched on a Black and White TV as a man took his first step on the moon. We certainly have come a long way…………what will our kids see in the next 50 years could only be regarded as magic!

— comment by Richard (Osaka - Japan) on August 6th, 2012 at 3:46pm JST (5 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Sadly I can’t use XKCD’s excuse… I just managed to watch the first thumbnail come in before I had to force myself out of the chair to go to work. Any mention of a Mars rover landing to co-workers would have resulted in, “Didn’t they already do that a few years ago?” :\

You actually didn’t miss much, then… after the thumbnail, a slightly larger version came in, lots more hugs, then one more image from a different camera came in, and that was it. I stopped watching perhaps five minutes after you did. —Jeffrey

— comment by JasonP on August 7th, 2012 at 4:34am JST (5 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

I desperately hope one of the engineering managers is working on a book: “Engineer’s guide to how we put Curiosity on Mars”.

— comment by Steve Friedl on August 7th, 2012 at 1:37pm JST (5 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink
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