Postcards from Mars.

Looks like the Mars Rover called Spirit not only managed a near-perfect landing, but is already sending pictures of its new Martian home including the first full-color picture since 1997. This pic is notable because it’s the highest resolution picture ever taken of the planet’s surface weighing in at a hefty eight megabytes. The pic I’ve linked to is a smaller jpeg that’s only one megabyte as the larger picture is currently unavailable due to high server load at NASA.

I just finished watching the episode of NOVA devoted to the mission on PBS and it did a great job of showing just how much of a challenge this undertaking has been. PBS plans to make the episode available online to watch later on now that it has aired so if you missed it you can check it out on their website soon. Anyway, a big congratulations to every at NASA and here’s hoping that Spirit’s twin rover “Opportunity” enjoys as smooth a ride to the surface when it’s due to land on January 24.

6 thoughts on “Postcards from Mars.

  1. I am torn on this issue. On the one hand I have been interested in space since I was a small child, and I love seeing the pictures from Mars. But I am not sure the benefits justify the cost. I am not saying we should never do this, but when you spend the American People’s money, I think it has to have a measurable benefit for at least a good portion of the population. My philosophy on projects that NASA, or any publically funded entity, undertakes should be prioritized based on immediacy of benefit and health of the national economy. It is like buying a new TV, if I am deep in debt, and not bringing in much money, I won’t buy it (unless my old one dies first). But if I am debt free, and rolling in money, I will buy the best TV I can get.

  2. Not sure I see the problem. Keep in mind that the space program often results in benefits that aren’t necessarily obvious. There are a number of products on the market which we take for granted that were developed for NASA. Things such as velcro and teflon so there are good things that come out of the space program above and beyond just an expansion of scientific knowledge.

    Also consider that there was a period of 20+ years between the Viking missions to Mars and our eventual return. The Viking probes were nowhere near as sophisticated as the rovers touching down this month yet the amount of money dedicated to that mission was higher than what was used for this one and when you take into account inflation since 1973 the cost of the Viking missions baloons into the billions in today’s dollars. So it could be argued that NASA is a much leaner and less costly program than it used to be.

    If the missions to Mars were just for entertainment value then I might be inclined to agree with your TV analogy, but this is about more than just having a cool space program. The Pathfinder mission in 1997 was light on the science and was conducted more to prove the technology they were using would work, but this time out the focus on science is a lot higher.

  3. Keep in mind that the space program often results in benefits that aren’t necessarily obvious

    I’d just like to tack on a couple of additional points; they’re not quite as substantive as Les’s, but I think they’re pertinent whenever we start discussing how govt. funds are being spent.  It’s pretty common for people to decry spending money on the space program as a high expense with a low return, and compared to funding education, or infrastructure, or job creation programs, I can see how space exploration would not necessarily be a priority.  But there is an idea behind this kind of exploration that is worth supporting; the idea that humanity may, one day, leave this planet.  Not that the planet will care, but we might want to have an escape hatch, just in case our own pool of shit starts rising higher than our chins.

    In the more immediate future, there’s the possibility of commercial mining enterprises(particularly once we have the tech to create an “elevator” that will minimize the expenditure of leaving the gravity well.  Rockets are a pretty crude way of accomplishing this).

    Two, NASA will always get a least a minimal level of funding, because the govt. plans to put space based weapons in orbit.  They’re salivating at the prospect.  Not to mention spy satellites that can tell whether you’re wearing the official “state approved” underwear.  (Hanes and Fruit of the Loom are equally acceptable, but all other brands are grounds for arrest under the provisions of Patriot Act III).

    (I’m tempted to make some sort of flippant comment like “would you rather have your money spent on stealth bombers or scientific exploration,” but it’s not that easy to separate NASA and the military.  Oh well.  I guess I don’t really have a point after all.  Time for more coffee!)

  4. I wasn’t trying to say that the missions to Mars were purely entertainment value, just that they are of minimal value to the general public. NASA Isn’t just a space agency, it also works in the aeronautics field, and most of what they do in that area affects commercial air transit, an area that has much more impact in peoples lives. The earth orbit missions are also important to many people (a satellite delivers the images to my TV after all). The only redeaming value in the near term for projects such as this is the people that are employed by the contractors used in production, and that may be enough reason for justification (even though I am fairly certain some CEO’s are benefiting disproportionately, but that is an entirely different problem).

  5. A valid point, and taken as such.  But I don’t think the mars missions, and similar stuff, are really aimed at “near term” benefits.  They’re aimed at pushing the envelope.  Kind of the “can we even do this?” kind of stuff. 

    As for whether or not those kinds of missions are “worth” it. . .  I’d still have to say yes, but I have an idealistic streak when it comes to exploration.  Of space, or deep water environments.  I think it’s exciting and interesting, and I think if we want to cut “waste” expenses in the govt., there are more heinous examples of waste to be found in other areas.  I would be very sad :frown: if NASA was reduced to doing only immediately profitable or “productive” work. :twocents:

  6. Valhalla, I’m not sure how you feel comfortable comparing exploration of our solar system (pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and dominion) with buying a new television (umm…).  These missions are advancing us as a species, and if we wait until we have our act 100% together at home, we’ll never go.  What’s important is to set goals and make plans to achieve them.  1% of our budget is a small price to pay for such incredible accomplishments, purely on a scientific level, not to mention the medium-term military (in other words securing “our way of life”) necessities of space power.

    For news, status, updates, scientific info, images, video, and more, check out:
    (AXCH) 2004 Mars Exploration Rovers - News, Status, Technical Info, History.

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