Sunday | October 22, 2017
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Hilo crowd enjoys Mars ride

By PETER SUR

Tribune-Herald staff writer

As the first image from the Red Planet arrived to an ecstatic crowd of engineers in Mission Control, another crowd beneath the planetarium dome at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo gave a more muted reaction.

A few minutes earlier, they were heartily applauding the pinpoint arrival of the Curiosity rover in an ancient Martian crater.

Now the first image, a 64-by-64 pixel black and white that appeared to be taken by a cucumber, emerged on the screen. This was expected; the first low-resolution images came from some of the downward-pointing “hazard cams” on the rover while the high-definition cameras were stowed away.

But the biggest surprise for those watching around the world was that the rover had survived. Curiosity came from a screaming 13,000 mph journey at the top of the Martian atmosphere to a dead stop in seven minutes, and it was still transmitting.

“So far it looks like a total success,” said Bobby Bus, a Mauna Kea astronomer and the evening’s featured speaker. “Now the hard part begins.”

Hopes are high that the rover will be able to find in Gale Crater evidence of complex organic molecules that could have developed when the planet was warmer and wetter.

That in itself is not enough to declare the presence of life on Mars, but if those molecules exist it would provide the strongest evidence to date that extraterrestrial life — real aliens — exists. And if life can develop on Mars, where else could it happen?

Interest in the landing was so high that a sold-out crowd of 140 paying customers braved the Hilo rain to watch the landing live in the planetarium. Prior to that, they watched a one-time showing in the planetarium of a special program, “Traveler’s Guide to Mars.” Bus gave a presentation on what it would take to get to Mars, and all of the hidden hazards.

“This is the exciting part. It’s never been tried before,” Bus said as the large video screen showed the rover descending from the sky crane, part of a computer visualization of the improbable landing.

“Why not just the air bags again?” asked a man in the audience, referring to the way previous rovers had landed on the planet.

“This thing weighs about a ton. It turns out that air bags only work out to a certain size,” Bus replied.

The video showed Curiosity’s laser zapping a rock outcropping.

“That is cool,” a boy in the front row said.

Bus then took the audience on a 3-D topographic view of the planet, answering any questions that the audience might have.

On a computer simulation of the planet, Bus zeroed in on Gale Crater and showed images that appeared to show sedimentary deposits in the crater’s central peak.

“This banding is really the thing that draws geologists,” Bus said. “This should contain a history going back all the way to 3 billion years ago.”

But first they had to land. The audience was getting nervous.

“This idea of lowering it down, that a crane that is held up by jets, and cutting it at just the right time without something going wrong is pretty amazing,” Bus said.

Then he went to the live video feed, and the Internet connection died.

“That’s not a good sign,” Bus said. Eventually he was able to get the thing working.

Silence fell upon the planetarium as a commentator counted down the minutes before its entry into Mars’ atmosphere.

Those watching held their hands over their mouths as the signal dropped out and was re-acquired. They may not have understood all of the chatter going back and forth, but they waited for the final critical moments of the landing.

“Here’s the hard part,” someone said as the sky crane prepared to descend its cargo to the surface.

Then it was over. The rover was on the surface. People applauded, although they couldn’t match the ecstatic engineers in Mission Control.

“That’s quite a relief,” Bus said. “What you’re seeing there is people who have probably spent 10 years of their life preparing for this.”

Email Peter Sur at psur@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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