by Richy Craven
Now we’re not denying that The Olympics were an amazing spectacle. The world’s greatest athletes displaying feats of incredible athleticism and determination is always fun to watch. But no matter how fast Usain Bolt runs or how many dozens of medals that merman Phelps manages to get can we all agree that the Olympics was essentially a glorified track meet compared to landing a robot on the surface of Mars safely?
While the world’s jocks were off being stronger, faster and just evolutionarily speaking, better than the rest of us, the world’s nerds were getting busy being smarter, more ambitious and a hell of a lot crazier.
Now we get that interplanetary astrophysics is incredibly complicated and we can’t ever begin to remotely understand it but hey! So are women and that doesn’t stop us from admiring them.
Here are four reasons why you should have been focussed on the Mars rover rather than the Olympics last week.
1. The Impossible Journey
Now, we don’t want to get overly technical and scientific with you here but Mars is really, really far away. Specifically, it’s anywhere between 34 and 250 million miles away. Getting the rover there wasn’t simply a matter of strapping a couple of rockets to it and firing it the planet’s general direction. Mars and Earth are constantly moving around the sun at different speeds. In order to get it there NASA had to work out how long it would take the rover to get there (about 9 months) and then fire it at where they thought Mars would be by then. They were essentially shooting a robot into the future, meaning that NASA has officially been stealing game-plans from Skynet (though our robot hasn’t turned on us…yet).
But Hey! Mars is still a big-ass planet right? Surely it would have been kind of hard to miss as long as they were paying attention? Well, apparently they couldn’t just land the rover anywhere on the surface of the red planet and just call it a day, that would be too easy. In order to up the difficulty level from “hardcore” to “acid-nightmare” the scientists at NASA had to aim for an area of Mars about 4 miles wide and 12 miles long, it being too dangerous to land it anywhere else. Also, since it takes 15 minutes for the rover’s signal to reach Earth the NASA team couldn’t make up-to-the-minute changes to the Rover’s course, the landing would have to be carried out by the rover’s on-board guidance and targeting systems.
There was a lot of hype about the South Korean Olympic archery team being captained by a blind guy but this would be like that blind guy hitting the bull’s-eye while spinning around on an office chair at a million revolutions per second — while the target is attached to a truck driving around the city — 2 miles away — in the dark. It was extremely difficult is what we’re saying.
And they pulled it off! Not only did NASA hit their planetary bullseye but they even managed to time it perfectly with one of their satellites orbiting Mars, allowing them to take photos of the rover landing. This is the engineering equivalent of Usain Bolt tweeting photos of himself as he crosses the finish line.
2. Sticking the Landing
Just like in gymnastics, it doesn’t matter what cool $#!+ you’ve done in the air, if you screw up the landing you’re going to be getting a 2.2 from the Norwegian judge. It turns out that getting the rover to Mars was actually the easy part. The difficult bit is getting the rover to go from 13,000 miles an hour to zero miles an arrow without it turning into the world’s most expensive meteor strike.
This wasn’t some worst case scenario either. The landing process was so fraught with danger that the NASA scientists referred to it as “7 minutes of terror”. When sober, intelligent men of science make something sound like the title of a horror movie then you know $#!+ is real.
The landing procedure was a complicated, multi-staged process, with each stage bringing new and interesting ways to turn Curiosity into a giant fireball.
When the rover first hit Mars’ atmosphere the heat of passing through it caused the rover’s heat shielding around it to reach temperatures of about 1600 degrees. After the Satan-esque temperatures failed to murder it the rover then deployed the largest, strongest parachute ever built by NASA…which still didn’t slow it down enough. The last stage of the landing procedure was using what NASA call the sky crane” and what the rest of us call “The A.C.M.E rocket parachute” because that what it looked like. The sky crane lowered the rover to the surface of Mars before being cut loose, presumably to crash into the extra-terrestrial equivalent of Wile-E-Coyote.
Remember that, during all of this, NASA was working off a 15 minute delay, meaning the whole maneuver was achieved by the rover’s onboard computer and radar system. Yes we shot a computer that sophisticated into space to be bombarded with cosmic radiation for 9 months and then crashed into the side of a lonely, desolate wasteland. There’s no way that’ll come back to haunt us.
3. The Rover Itself
When it comes to building something that was going to be ramping and powersliding around Mars for two years NASA does not mess about. Curiosity looks like Johnny Five’s cooler, older brother.
It’s nuclear-powered, theoretically meaning that it could run for over a decade and also because if the “7 Minutes of Terror” landing actually did go south examining what happens if we crash a nuke into Mars at 13,000 miles and hour is a close second to actually doing actual research for NASA.
We’d say it looks like something that belongs in a Transformers movie but turning into a fighter jet would actually make this robot look less cool. Plus, if the Autobots had Curiosity on their side then Transformers 2 would have been one hell of a short movie since Megatron would have been a pile of melted slag by about minute 4. This is because Curiosity is armed with a heavy duty laser capable of cutting through solid concrete and blowing up rocks.
Why does it have a laser? Well, the official reason is so it can use it to see what Mars’s rocks are made of but we suspect the real reason is because you don’t build a super-sophisticated, rocket-powered, atomic space-robot and not give it lasers.
Each of Curiosity’s 6 wheels also has indentations that imprint the letters JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) into the sands of Mars in morse code so we can add “graffiti-ing an alien world” to the list of NASA’s unbelievably cool achievements. We’re guessing that their original message, “Suck it! Martians!” was too long to be added.
4. The Name is Awesome
We know that, at first glance “Curiosity” doesn’t seem all that badass a name (our suggestion would have been “Nuclear Planet-Puncher”) but just think about it.
In the future, when people inevitably ask NASA scientists why they decided to fire a nuclear, laser robot at an alien planet? They can look them straight in the eye, take a drag of their cigarette and simply say “To see if we could.” And that is completely badass.
5. It’s One of the Most Ambitious Things We’ve Ever Done
The Mars rover is the most ambitious thing humanity has ever tried since one of us looked out at the sea and thought “I bet if I cut down a few trees and tied them together I could make Poseidon my bitch.” We’re the species that looked out at the vast, terrifying emptiness of space and took it as a challenge.
There may not be any alien life in our solar system but if there is they just watched us punch a planet with a Terminator. You can bet that they won’t be attacking any time soon now that they know what we’re capable of.
All of this is why we at Man Cave believe that we should force the Olympic gold medal winners to breed with the NASA scientists. Because a) Think of how amazing those kids would be and b) they’ve been working really hard. They deserve some hot, bendy gymnast sex.
Richy Craven is a sophisticated machine for turning whiskey into regrettable life choices, he also writes occasionally. Check out more of his stuff at Cracked.com, A Series of Terrible Decisions or follow him on Twitter.