Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mars: Patience and Persistence

When Curiosity dove into the Martian atmosphere late in the evening of August 5, 2012, PDT, we had three different spacecraft in Mars orbit ready to support it. The oldest, Mars Odyssey, arrived in Mars orbit late in 2001. It has served as a communications relay for Spirit and Opportunity, and it will do so for Curiosity, providing a critical link to Earth during its entry, when Curiosity itself was blocked from Earth by the horizon of Mars, and thereafter as needed. This is a critical capability: a rover on the Martian surface trying to contact Earth directly is blinded by the planet at least half the time.

The Mars Express orbiter entered Mars orbit late in 2003. She will also serve as a communications relay.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was the third, in Mars orbit since 2006. She can also serve as a communications relay, but her powerful camera also scouted the landing site, photographed Curiosity as she descended beneath her parachute, and pinpointed the landing site of Curiosity and the various components that allowed her to reach the surface intact.

This flotilla of spacecraft, so important to Curiosity's effectiveness, began arriving in Mars orbit over a decade ago. Initial funding and design began long before.

Space isn't going to go away. The long game is the smart game.

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