Curiosity rover: Hoping for a “perfect 10”

Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here is the AP’s headline, which I wish I had written:

NASA to athletic Mars rover: ‘Stick the landing’

In less than four days, NASA’s mini-Cooper-sized Mars rover will land on Mars (finger’s crossed). This is no small feat: about half of all missions to the Red Planet have failed. Plus, NASA is using a new “sky crane” landing technology rather than letting the rover bounce or parachute to a landing. So, yes, I’m holding my breath and sitting on pins and needles. It’s the same feeling I’ve had all week watching the U.S. Olympic team.

For those on the West Coast, Curiosity (also known as Mars Science Laboratory) will touch down at Gale Crater at 10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT Aug. 6). NASA TV will cover the event live with coverage beginning at 8:30 p.m. PDT, so you can tune in on your TV or computer.

Curiosity has several advantages over rovers past. It will run on nuclear instead of solar power, meaning it can keep on trucking during Martian winter. It’s wheels are much beefier than those of Sojourner and Spirit and Opportunity, allowing the rover to drive over rocks 29 inches high and travel 656 feet per day. Curiosity is a chemist and geologist in one, with the most sophisticated instruments to date. It can gobble up samples and analyze them in its internal laboratory. Over the course of the mission, Curiosity will study the role of water on Mars, atmospheric evolution and climate.

Here are some resources for sharing this historic moment with your curious kids.

Will you watch the landing? Will you tune in with your kids?

Holidays, Science/Math

What’s Special About Space Day?

View from the International Space Station
Photo courtesy of NASA

Tomorrow, May 4th, is Space Day, a made-up holiday of sorts brought to you by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Whether Space Day is real or manufactured, it does provide a wonderful opportunity to talk about what’s exciting about space these days.

First, the bad news: the Space Shuttle program ended last year. Now the good news: that delivery of Space Shuttles to museums across the country has begun. In mid April, the Space Shuttle Discovery arrived at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. The museum will host a special Space Day Family Day on Saturday, May 5 featuring astronauts, LEGO builds, tours and more. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be in Washington, D.C. this weekend. Meanwhile the Space Shuttle Enterprise landed in Manhattan just a few short days ago and will be on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in June. Endeavour and Atlantis will make their way to their new homes later this year. (Let me just pause and say, “Woo hoo,” the California Science Center is getting Endeavour! Atlantis will be on display in Florida.)

More good news: even though NASA retired the Space Shuttle, people still live and work in space. Six astronauts currently live aboard the International Space Station, where they conduct scientific experiments. They ride back and forth to the Station aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which is more reminiscent of the Apollo rocket/capsule combo than an airplane. Most recently, a human-like robot, called Robonaut 2, arrived in space, ready to work side-by-side with astronauts there. It has such dexterity it can hold and use tools, just like the astronauts. Learn more about Robonaut here.

The best news (according to my five-year-old):  the Mini-Cooper-sized Mars Rover, called Curiosity, is scheduled to land on the Red Planet on August 5th PDT (that’s August 6th for you East Coasters). As a refresher, Curiosity is a new and improved version of the famed Spirit and Opportunity twin rovers with one mission: to look for places life might have existed on Mars. Long-time followers of this blog may recall my elder son’s obsession with Curiosity: his Curiosity Halloween costume, Curiosity Christmas ornaments, our trip the Mars Yard at JPL. Well, landing is imminent, less than 100 days away.

Honestly, it’s hard to sum up what’s exciting about space, since amazing new discoveries happen daily. We find new moons in our solar system, more planets in our galaxy, black holes munching on stars and more beyond. What excites you about space?