- November 11, 2011 4:35 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks
It's been a busy week for Mars exploration, as Russian scientists struggled to regain control of a wayward probe; six volunteers emerged from a 500-day simulated mission to the Red Planet; and NASA prepared its largest, most sophisticated robotic Mars explorer for launch. It all shows that getting to Mars is not easy, technically or psychologically.The Phobos-Grunt mission was supposed to be an elegant second attempt by the Russians to reach the tiny Martian moon, Phobos, and bring a piece of it back to Earth. They first tried this in 1988, with twin robots also named Phobos, but that mission was lost because of an incorrect command sent to one of them along the way, and a loss of communication with the other one, after it arrived at Mars. The Russians have had terrible luck sending robots to Mars, with 18 failures in all.
The current mission got off the ground on time and was placed into a low parking orbit around the Earth, which is a chance to check out all the systems before sending it on to Mars. Well, all the systems did not work properly because the spacecraft stopped talking. So far, all attempts to contact the lost Russian spaceship have been unsuccessful.Meanwhile, Curiosity, NASA's latest robot, the size of a small car, was hoisted atop its rocket, which is scheduled to blast off Nov. 25. It is the largest, most complicated probe ever sent to land on a planet. NASA tends throw all of its eggs into one large spacecraft basket, hoping for greater returns. It has worked in the past, especially with the last two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
Any robot sent to land on Mars, or on its moon Phobos, must
execute a complicated sequence of manoeuvres throughout the flight that all have
to work perfectly. A mistake in any
part can sacrifice the entire mission and in the past, those mistakes have
usually been minor.
One crash was because of a metric-imperial mix-up in the amount of fuel needed; another was caused by a tiny sensor that shut down the engines hundreds of metres above the ground because it thought the spacecraft had already landed. There is an endless list of minor glitches that have caused major problems on more than half of all the spacecraft ever sent to Mars, Russian and American combined.Beyond the mechanical challenges of flying to another planet, the stresses on the mind were tested by the six members of the Mars 500 crew, who lived together in cramped quarters, 24/7, for almost a year and a half, which is the minimum travel time to Mars and back.
The highly disciplined crew relied on teamwork to avoid the stresses of isolation and confinement, but interestingly, there was no woman among them. The designers of the experiment wished to avoid any sexual tensions that might arise from living in such close quarters, which has happened on other isolation experiments.
The bottom line is that Mars is very hard to get to, and anyone who thinks that we will have a place to go, in case we trash our own planet, is kidding themselves. The journey is long and hard; the cold Martian environment, which lacks oxygen, is harsh once you get there. The cost of the trip is huge and the risk is high. If something goes wrong, help is a long, long way away.That's not to say we shouldn't explore it. Many more robots and, eventually, a few intrepid human explorers will visit Mars to find out its history, discover whether life evolved there and prove that humans are capable of reaching other worlds. But Mars will not become a safe haven for Earthlings looking for a new planet. Getting there is not as easy as crossing the Atlantic to colonize America.
We are stuck on our own planet, which just happens to be the
best, most hospitable planet there is. There is nothing like Earth anywhere
close to here.
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