Seven Minutes of Terror: Engineering the Mars Rover's Impossible Landing
NASA engineer Adam Steltzner is driving his team to attempt the seemingly impossible.
Here's an interesting engineering challenge. Fly an unmanned spacecraft carrying a 2,000 pound rover 300 million miles to Mars. Smash into the planet's extremely thin atmosphere at 13,000 mph, which will light up the craft's heat shield like the sun, reaching temperatures of 1,600 degrees. The atmosphere will slow your craft down to about 1,000 mph, but you will need to figure out a way to eventually slow to zero, jettison the heat shield and simultaneously guide the ship to a safe landing in the constrained space of the Gale crater.
A supersonic parachute will slow you down to 200 mph, but you're still coming in too hot for a landing. It's time to exercise your pyrotechnic devices, blasting rockets to divert the craft away from the parachute. These rockets can't get too close to the ground because they might create a massive dust cloud and damage the rover's equipment. So a sky crane will have to gently lower the rover to the surface (A so-called 'rover on a rope': is it genius or crazy or a lot of both?).
This sequence is dramatized in a thrilling video below, which NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab has dubbed the "seven minutes of terror," as it will take seven minutes for the craft to travel from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of the planet. It will take 14 minutes to transmit the signal back to Earth, meaning you will have to wait in agonizing uncertainty for seven minutes, not knowing whether your $2.5 billion mission is a success or failure.
You give up? No one would blame you.
Adam Steltzner did not give up. In fact, the NASA engineer has spent the last nine years of his life leading a team to solve this problem. Given the margin for error -- which is zero -- it is a good thing that Steltzner is a cool cat, which is how NPR described him in a recent profile. We are rooting for his efforts to come to fruition early Monday, when the Mars rover is scheduled to complete its nine-month journey. On the other hand, if anything goes wrong in the sequence described above, Steltzner's mission will fail. Like those odds?
Watch the video here:
What's the Big Idea?
The highly complex field of spacecraft engineering, not surprisingly, is clouded with the kind of jargon The Associated Press describes as "a sort of Martian alphabet soup."
Steltzner's team is responsible for EDL, or Entry, Decent and Landing, the crucial phase of the Curiosity mission outlined in the video above. Steltzner's team had to custom design a landing system for a rover that is five times heavier than previous ones sent to Mars. They also had to contend with the challenge of the Red Planet's extremely thin atmosphere. A new parachute and rocket system had to be custom designed as well. And yet, the team's signature innovation is the way it all works together.
Therefore, if successful, this mission will be the triumph of both teamwork and leadership. The teamwork involved nearly a decade of tinkering the system's design. The leadership has come from the steady hand of Steltzner, who traded a career in rock n' roll for physics. His former career as a bassist appears to be suiting him well at NASA. In the face of adversity, Steltzner advises his team to keep themselves "like, chill, and focused and not freaking."
Two out of every three missions to Mars end in failure. Hero or goat, we commend Steltzner for driving his team to attempt the seemingly impossible, and will be inviting him to appear on Big Think.
As X Prize Founder and space pioneer Peter Diamandis tells us below, every radical breakthrough began as "a crazy idea." The commercial space industry is a perfect example. People didn't want to invest in the idea because they didn't believe it was possible. From a leadership standpoint, Diamandis tells us, you need to make people believe it is possible.
Watch the video here:
What's the Significance?
The significance of the Curiosity rover mission is twofold. If NASA's team is able to successfully complete this engineering challenge, the landing will be a feat unto itself. Furthermore, if Curiosity isn't consumed in a fireball, the machine will go on to conduct a geological survey of the planet for one Martian year (or 687 Earth days). Its first discovery might be imminent. Curiosity is touching down on the Gale Crater because scientists believe the sediment there will contain evidence that there was once a habitable environment on Mars.
You can give yourself a front row seat in a video game that resulted from a partnership between NASA and Microsoft called The Mars Rover Landing. The game is available as a free download at Xbox Live. NASA's engineers describe the gaming experience as very similar to what the actual landing will be like.
Image courtesy of NASA
Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan
Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.
- With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
- The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
- If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Built for mayhem<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzk4NTQ2OX0.my6nML12F3fEQu3H4G0BScdqgaMZkRQHxgyj-Cmjmzk/img.jpg?width=980" id="906fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd77af7a881631355ed8972437846394" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers are, of course, talking averages here, not stating a rule: There are plenty of accomplished female pugilists, as well as lots of males who have no idea how to throw a punch.</p><p>Even so, says co-author <a href="https://www.wofford.edu/academics/majors-and-programs/biology/faculty-and-staff" target="_blank">Jeremy Morris</a> says, "The general approach to understanding why sexual dimorphism evolves is to measure the actual differences in the muscles or the skeletons of males and females of a given species, and then look at the behaviors that might be driving those differences."</p><p>Carrier has been interested in the idea that millennia of male fighting has shaped certain structures in male bodies. Previous research has reinforced his hunch:</p> <ul> <li><a href="https://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/2/236" target="_blank">When a hand is formed into a fist, its structure is self-protective</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://unews.utah.edu/flat-footed-fighters/" target="_blank">Heels planted firmly on the ground augment upper-body power</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909544" target="_blank">A study examined facial bone structure as being especially well-suited for taking a punch</a>.</li> </ul> <p>(That last one is our favorite. Do you know the German word "<a href="https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Backpfeifengesicht" target="_blank">backpfeifengesicht</a>?" It's an adjective describing "a face that badly needs a punching.")</p><p>"One of the predictions that comes out of those," asserts Carrier, "is if we are specialized for punching, you might expect males to be particularly strong in the muscles that are associated with throwing a punch."</p>
Testing the theory<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIzMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzMxMTE2MH0.UXJICMy57UPYUWskhK98alctOrPidJL9yxMkz3HDQrM/img.jpg?width=980" id="98718" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b12287684ac3e740b70392e6433a6b8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers measured the punching — and spear-throwing — force of 20 men and 19 women. The assumption was that early humans were punchers <em>and</em> spear-throwers.</p><p>Prior to testing, each participant had filled out an activity questionnaire so that "we weren't getting couch potatoes, we were getting people that were very fit and active," says Morris.</p><p>For punching, participants operated a hand crank that required movement similar to throwing a haymaker. The purpose of the hand crank was to spare participants any damage that might be inflicted on their fists by throwing actual punches. Subjects were also measured pulling a line forward over their heads to assess their strength at throwing a spear.</p><p>Even though all of the participants, male and female, were routinely fit, the average power of males was assessed as being 162% greater than females. There were no gender differences in throwing strength recorded. Other untested, though presumably likely, hand-to-hand combat activities come to mind including tackling, clubbing, running, kicking, scratching, and biting.</p><p>Carrier's takeaway: "This is a dramatic example of sexual dimorphism that's consistent with males becoming more specialized for fighting, and males fighting in a particular way, which is throwing punches."</p>
Boys will be boys<p>It, er, strikes us as odd that, even in science fiction — hi-tech weaponry notwithstanding — the hero <em>is</em> going to wind up duking it out with some bad guy, or alien, in the climactic battle. What is it about men punching, anyway? Are they more sexually attractive? The study suggests so:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The results of this study add to a set of recently identified characters indicating that sexual selection on male aggressive performance has played a role in the evolution of the human musculoskeletal system and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in hominins.</em></p><p>It's tough to contribute to the gene pool after being killed in battle.</p><p>Also, while the authors aren't <em>quite</em> saying that males' historical fighting role is mandated by biology and not by social expectations, neither are they quite <em>not</em> saying it.</p><p>As Carrier explain to <a href="https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/carrier-punch/" target="_blank">theU</a>: "Human nature is also characterized by avoiding violence and finding ways to be cooperative and work together, to have empathy, to care for each other, right? There are two sides to who we are as a species. If our goal is to minimize all forms of violence in the future, then understanding our tendencies and what our nature really is, is going to help."</p>
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.