'Curiosity: Carl Sagan’s Vision Of Robotic Exploration On Mars’ is the 26th installment of Callum C. J. Sutherland’s ‘Carl Sagan Tribute Series’, which communicate some of Carl’s most influential words through visuals that mirror unique moments throughout Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and translate the unique pedigree of prophetic wisdom he imparted on us amidst his audiobook, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision Of The Human Future In Space.
This particular video highlights the feats accomplished throughout our expeditions and explorations of Mars via spacecraft and autonomous robotic emissaries. Let’s not forget how long we’ve been at this, why Mars is still very much a goal, and how much collaboration has been involved with our failed and successful attempts to get there…
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Most notable of our Mars conquests were the highly sophisticated Viking Landers 1 & 2, which revolutionized our understanding of Mars with full 360-degree pictures, analyzed samples of the Martian soil, diagnostic monitoring of temperature, wind direction, and wind speed, the Viking Landers revealed further details of volcanoes, lava plains, massive canyons, and the blatant effects of wind and water. Soil analysis via the landing sites exposed them to be rich in iron, but absent of any signs of life.
Viking 1, the first U.S. lander, successfully touched down on July 20, 1976 in Mars’ Chryse Planitia. As a lander - meaning, it landed and did not “rove” - Viking 1 beamed back data for 6 years. The iconic image above shows one of the first images returned from the lander, and our first actual “foot print” on the surface of the red planet.
Viking 2 (image above) provided insight into a more rocky landscape, using its intricate seismometer (Viking 1’s failed), the lander measured ‘Marsquakes’ on the surface, which provided data about the thickness of the Martian regolith and crust below, along with measuring wind pressure to study the “cold fronts.”
In the video above, a segment from ‘Cosmos' Episode 6: Blues For A Red Planet is excerpted, where Carl describes the Viking landers in such a way only he could…
"The Viking Lander is a superbly instrumented and designed machine. It extends human capabilities to other and alien landscapes. By some standards, it’s about as smart as a grasshopper, by others, only as intelligent as a bacterium. There’s nothing demeaning in these comparisons; it took nature hundreds of millions of years to evolve a bacterium, and billions of years to make a grasshopper. With only a little experience in this sort of business, we’re getting pretty good at it."
However extraordinary the feats of Viking 1 & 2 were and still are today, there happens to be - even despite the persistent triumphs of the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” - one little rover that knocks on my sciencey feels of Martian exploration and my love and adoration for Carl: Mars Pathfinder.
Mars Pathfinder was the first spacecraft to land on the surface of the red planet since the Viking mission in 1976. On reaching Mars on July 4, 1997, the spacecraft entered the planet’s thin atmosphere, was slowed by a parachute and then rockets, and then landed by bouncing on inflated airbags. The protective aeroshell then unfolded to provide the three flat platforms, one of which held a rover (Sojourner). Pathfinder had a TV camera and scientific instruments to gather scientific data on the martian atmosphere and weather, as well as solar cells to provide power and communications. The lander operated for over 90 days, during which it relayed 2.3 gigabits of data including that gathered by Sojourner. Some of this data suggest the presence of large amounts of water on Mars in the distant past. [source]
Mars Pathfinder laid the groundwork for autonomous rovers to follow in its tracks (not literally, Mars is still a big place for a rover to cover the same territory twice!) Pathfinder was equipped with a suite of instruments to study the atmosphere, climate, geology and composition of rocks and soil. The Sojourner rover - its name meaning “traveler”, was a small, lightweight vehicle the lander carried inside. With a small suite of science experiments along with front and rear cameras, it provided us an up close and personal view of Mars we had never seen, using the lander as its base to communicate with Earth.
The Mars panorama, courtesy of the Pathfinder mission. View full size HERE.
Carl’s words in the above video strike through me to the core, foreshadowing achievements we’ve now made possible with missions leading up to Curiosity and currently in development, when he outlines what we will need to explore the Martian terrain via advancements in autonomous robotic technology, while continuing on about Viking:
"…One of the things that a grasshopper can do that Viking can’t, is move. We landed in the dull places on Mars. For all the solid scientific findings and tantalizing hints which Viking provided, we know there are an enormous number of places on the planet far more interesting. What we need is a roving vehicle with advanced experiments in biology and organic chemistry, able to land in the safe but dull places, and wander to the interesting places. A Mars rover hasn’t got time to ask whether it should attempt a steep slope. Radio waves traveling at the speed of light take about 20 minutes on the round trip to Earth. By the time it got an answer, it might be a heap of twisted metal at the bottom of a canyon. A rover has to think for itself."
Size comparison of Mars Exploration Rover (MER), Mars Pathfinder (MPF), Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Three generations of Mars Rovers. [source]
Carl continues…and we smile, knowing his ambitions toward his dreams of Martian exploration have been thus, so far, realized…
"Imagine a rover with laser eyes…but packed with sophisticated biological and chemical instruments, sampler arms, microscopes and television cameras, wandering over the Martian landscape. It could drive to its own horizon every day, a distant feature - it barely resolves at sunrise - it can be sniffing and tasting by nightfall…"
Keeping up with “Curiosity”…the Mars Science Laboratory.
"Billions of people could watch the unfolding adventure on their television sets as the rover explores the ancient river bottoms, or cautiously approaches the enigmatic pyramids of Elysium. Most of the human species would witness the exploration of another world. A new age of discovery would have begun."
Crowds gathered at Times Square for the landing of Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity”.
Why does this pull on my sciencey heart strings?
Because Carl Sagan never got to see his vision of robotic roving Mars exploration realized. He passed away two weeks after the launch of the very first Mars rover, little Sojourner, aboard the Mars Pathfinder mission, which landed on July 4, 1997.
Due to Carl’s vital contributions to the previous Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo missions, along with the monumental impact in the waves of science communication in his time which still ripple beyond us still, NASA renamed Sojourners lander - its communications relay to Earth - the Carl Sagan Memorial Station.
So it was with great pleasure, and an indescribable feeling of love and nostalgia, that I was able to take my now-fiance, Melissa (lawngirl) on her first voyage to the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum in Chantilly, VA, where we gazed upon the full-scale engineering prototype designed and built by JPL for NASA’s Office of Space Science (above).
I speak for her and I when I confess that it was an emotional moment to say the least, as it’s Carl and his impact on our lives which effectively brought us together. We love you, Carl.
"Science is a collaborative enterprise, spanning the generations. When it permits us to see the far side of some new horizon, we remember those who prepared the way, seeing for them also."
— Carl Sagan