Saturday, August 4, 2012

Curiosity Rover Stands a More Than 60% Chance of Failure

The odds are stacked against Curiosity.

Tomorrow, NASA's Curiosity rover will, hopefully, survive its '7 minutes of terror' and touch down on the surface of the Red Planet after a journey of nearly 9 months. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against NASA's $2 billion rover. When looking back in history at all the attempted missions to Mars, only 30% make it to the destination.

top officials at NASA are
banking on
Curiosity in more ways than one. First of all, the multi-billion dollar rover is the most ambitious mission to Mars to date, being to Spirit and Opportunity what the twin rovers were to the first generation Sojourner rover: a big step-up in scientific capability. Amazingly,Opportunity, which (along with Spirit) was given a mission life of 90 days, is still operating as well as ever on the Martian surface more than 8 years after touchdown (Spirit lasted 6 years). Needless to say, coming in the shadows of these better than wildest dream success stories, Curiosity has a lot to live up to on the science and exploration end of its mission.

Unfortunately, we Earthlings have a very poor track record of getting to Mars, 14 for 40 to be exact.

Last year, Russia lost its Phobos-Grunt mission, which was to land on Martian moon Phobos and return a sample to Earth, after a booster rocket failed to propel the probe out of Earth's orbit. Result: arguably the most ambitious planetary science mission in history burned up in Earth's atmosphere. However, Phobos-Grunt was not the first high-profile failure.

In the 1998-99 mission window, NASA was rocked by back-to-back failures as it lost both its Mars Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander, which carried a separate probe, Deep Space 2. After a post-failure investigation, it was determined that the Polar Lander's rocket engines fired at the wrong time, result: the probe smashed into the Martian surface. As for the Climate Orbiter, the cause of failure was nothing short of embarrassing: human error in the form of different measurements being used by the probe and ground control.

In 1992, nearly 20 years after the successful (but with very disappointing results) Viking missions to Mars, the United States decided to go back to the Red Planet again for the first time since then. Result: the highly-anticipated Mars Observer was lost in-route to its destination.

As for Russia, it has bore the brunt of the failures. Russia (then the USSR) launched its first Mars mission in 1960 but would endure a 11-year (and 11 mission) wait before it finally achieved success with its Mars 3 Orbiter/Lander in 1971. In the next close Mars approach, 1973, Russia would achieve a total and partial success. Since then, no Russian Mars probe has survived, a nearly 40 year 0-for streak culminating with Phobos-Grunt last year.

As for other space powers, Japan's one and only attempt to go to Mars failed and the European Space Agency (ESA) is 1 for 2.

Now, while things look bleak, there is good news: until Phobos-Grunt, every Mars mission since 2000 has been a partial or total success, which does bode well for Curiosity as the track record, while overall poor, is much better for recent missions.

As for Curiosity's (hopeful) landing, it will take place at about 10:30pm Pacific Time on August 5 (or about 1:30am Eastern Time on August 6).

For more:
A complete list of Mars missions (as of 2007)

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