TERRE HAUTE —
The name “Curiosity” fits the latest mission to Mars.
Humans’ fascination with the red planet dates back to ancient astronomers. Yet, for most of us, our knowledge of the fourth rock from the sun can be summed up in an episode of “My Favorite Martian.”
NASA landed Curiosity — its $2.5-billion roving, robotic laboratory on wheels — on the surface of Mars early Monday, and that machine should answer many mysteries and quell misperceptions. It won’t find a wacky Uncle Martin, with two retractable antennae atop his Martian head. (Curiosity is looking for signs of life, but I’m predicting none of its discoveries will include 1960s TV characters.) The rover will provide new photographs and video, and sample Mars’ soil and atmosphere in ways beyond that of previous explorations.
The potential excites millions of earthlings, from backyard stargazers to expert astronomers.
Rick Ditteon falls in the latter category. His interest in Mars sparked as a kid, watching the sci-fi cult classic “Angry Red Planet,” but it didn’t stop there. Now director of the Oakley Observatory and professor of physics and optical engineering at Rose-Hulman, Ditteon worked as a young scientist on the NASA Viking probes that landed on Mars in 1976. As for the Curiosity mission, he’s an observer these days, just like you and me.
His, though, is a voice of experience, and Ditteon sees great potential in this NASA venture.
“This is a much bigger project,” he said, “and will collect a lot more data, a greater variety of data, and data we’ve never gotten before.”
The target of the Viking and Curiosity voyages — as well as others — remains the same.
Named after the Roman god of war, Mars lies about 230 million kilometers from the sun. Unlike Earth, it has two uneven-shaped moons (Phobos and Deimos), a reddish hue (from iron-oxide, or rust, on its surface), a thin atmosphere (95 percent carbon dioxide, and just a trace of oxygen), and the tallest mountain in the solar system (Olympus Mons, three times the height of Mount Everest).
Its similarities to Earth, though, fuel earthlings’ intrigue. A day on Mars lasts a darned-close 24 hours and 39 minutes. Temperatures range from highs of a mild 60 degrees to lows below freezing. (By contrast, Earth’s other next-door-neighbor, Venus, sports an average temp that would vaporize guys and gals — around 900 degrees Fahrenheit.) The tilt of Mars’ axis creates seasons. And, best of all, scientists have detected hints of water vapor.
“Mars is the planet most likely to harbor life,” Ditteon said.
Man has been piecing together the puzzle of Mars’ reality for centuries, but that quest took a large step forward with the Viking mission. At that time, Ditteon was trying to decide where to pursue a graduate degree. He chose UCLA over Cal Tech for one reason — UCLA’s faculty included an instructor, Hugh Kieffer, who also was in charge of collecting data from a device aboard the Viking landers. Ditteon built his doctoral thesis on that information, specifically the daily temperature variations on the Mars’ surface. By working under Kieffer, “I got access to all that data,” he said.
A dream come true, far beyond “Angry Red Planet.” “It was pretty cool,” Ditteon admitted.
The Viking landers and orbiters revealed the most extensive evidence of the presence of water on Mars.
“The whole program was a huge success,” Ditteon said.
Other Mars missions, before and after, resulted in a mix of successes and failures. Curiosity could not only exceed them all, but also rekindle Americans’ interest in space exploration. The project’s primary aspiration is to assess whether Mars’ atmosphere can support life. In addition to its pricetag, Curiosity involves an investment of time and risk. The trip covered 352 million miles and eight months, before the craft — full of the most high-tech cargo ever to leave Earth — entered Mars’ atmosphere on a freefall. NASA called it “seven minutes of terror.” With such scant atmospheric conditions, the car-sized, nuclear-powered, one-ton rover needed elaborate landing equipment, including a parachute, to slow its descent.
Just like the days of Apollo, NASA scientists breathlessly monitoring the touchdown burst into celebration at Curiosity’s safe landing, according to Associated Press reports.
“Whenever you try something new, there’s a concern it’s not going to work properly,” Ditteon said.
That’s why future steps toward grander missions require so much homework in advance. (Curiosity has been in the works for a decade.) Presidents Bush and Obama both set out visions for manned trips to Mars by the 2030s. Such a round trip would last about two years and eight months, Ditteon estimated. “That’s probably the biggest obstacle to people making that trip,” he said.
Unmanned missions appeal to Ditteon more. “I’d like to see more money put into robots [on Mars],” he said. “I think we can learn a lot from that.”
In the meantime, Curiosity will roll over Mars’ surface for two years or more, gathering and analyzing soil and rock samples on the spot, snapping photos, seeking water traces and searching for hints of life — past or present.
Down here on Earth, the rover’s movements aren’t visible in the nighttime sky. Still, we can see Mars itself with the naked eye, around 10 o’clock tonight, low in the western sky, forming a triangle with Saturn and the star Spica, Ditteon said. You won’t get the cheesy special effects of a B-movie or a ’60s sitcom, but the view’s much better.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.
TERRE HAUTE —
The name “Curiosity” fits the latest mission to Mars.
- News Columns
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Sentencing law could benefit juveniles
Monica Foster is a longtime public defender who’s been pushing uphill in the legal system for a long time. So, when she says the General Assembly is making progress protecting the rights of the disenfranchised, it’s worth stopping to listen to her.
MIKE LUNSFORD: We’ve created a honey of a problem
The Dutch clover is making its appearance in my yard this week. A cooler-than-usual spring has slowed its arrival by a few days, but it is here for now, bringing the honeybees and bumblebees with it.
MARK BENNETT: Time for surf, sand and a good book
I can read a book on the beach. Until I start sweating. Then it feels like exercise, minus the fitness perks. My brain shifts into neutral as the waves roll in, blissfully washing away footprints in the sand and my inclination to think. Better put, I enjoy starting a book on the beach, and finishing it later, elsewhere.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Requiring photo IDs for food-stamp users has already been tried
Voters in Indiana are required to show their photo IDs before they can cast their ballots. Should food stamp recipients in Indiana have to do the same when they go to the grocery store?
MIKE LUNSFORD: Remembering Mom a day after Mother’s Day
I don’t think there has been a day in the last eight years that I haven’t thought of my mom. Being all grown up with wrinkles to call my own doesn’t make me miss my parents any less.
MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
MARK BENNETT: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing concept
The dog ate my homework. That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment. Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies.
MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives
Remember that name.
MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant
The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable. When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘Dowsers’ provide hope more than science
My grandfather was a man of God. Many times I saw him, his right hand held high in the air at his Wednesday night “prayer meeting,” praising the Lord before weeping at the altar on his knees. And yet, he was a “dowser,” a “diviner,” a “witcher” who, as a favor, would grab a forked sassafras stick and find water for some poor unfortunate whose well had gone dry.
MARK BENNETT: New reality steers Nashville singer to Crossroads for Historical Society concert
People pass through the Crossroads of America for lots of reasons.
Business trips. College campus events. Federal prison sentences. Visits with relatives. Gas pitstops.
Or maybe a career change and a twist of fate.
Ty Brown makes his first stop in downtown Terre Haute as the headliner of a multi-band Sweet Sensations Country Jam concert May 4 in the Ohio Building — a fundraiser for the Vigo County Historical Society.
HAYDEN: 9-year-old lobbyist weighs in on school safety
Senate Bill 1 shot to the forefront last week, after it was amended by the House education committee with a provision that mandates every public school in Indiana would be required to have someone on staff armed with a loaded gun during school hours.
HAYDEN: Republican shift proving to be real
When a federal judge struck down key provisions of the state’s immigration law last week, it seemed anticlimactic.
LUNSFORD: A different kind of resurrection story, no foolin’
If you’ve had pets in your family long enough, it’s likely that you’ll see a miracle or two — a dog that couldn’t possibly have lived, but did; a cat that grew to 20 pounds after being born the runt of the litter; a goldfish that had been belly-up too many times to believe it could have survived another day.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Americans of Hispanic heritage becoming active in Republican party
When Republicans in the Indiana General Assembly decided earlier this year to put off a vote on locking the state’s same-sex marriage ban into the state constitution, it sent a signal that GOP leaders were evolving on the issue of marriage equality.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years
People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.
“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.
The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week.
MIKE LUNSFORD: As of today, it’s unofficially spring
Despite the calendar telling us not to rush things, I think it is all right to go ahead and say spring is here. The Ides of March has passed, Easter is coming soon, and I have already been out in my yard with a rake, getting my boots muddy. It looks like spring to me.
Americans for Prosperity aim to browbeat GOP lawmakers
If you're outside the Indianapolis TV market, you may not have seen yet the Americans for Prosperity ad that demonizes the House Republicans for resisting Republican Gov. Mike Pence's tax cut plan.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Pence may find himself in a mess if he gets what he wants
Here’s a story to consider: A Republican governor with ties to the tea party and possible presidential ambitions decides he wants to slash the state’s income tax rate, but meets with massive resistance from legislative leaders from his own party.
Sounds like the scenario playing out in the Indiana Statehouse, right?
MARK BENNETT: Reflections of grid success stir with Brent Anderson’s passing
A few hundred miles away, and nearly 40 years gone by, a special game ball still occupies a fond place in Rudy Bohinc’s memories.
MIKE LUNSFORD: If handwriting is a window to my soul, I’m glad this is typewritten…
Somewhere in the mess I call my “archives,” I have most of my grade school report cards hidden away. I have kept them under wraps, because I want to be long gone when my children — or grandchildren — unearth them and discover that their self-righteous teacher of a dad was, in fact, a terrible student in his formative years.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Are legislators gambling with the future of gaming?
Indiana lawmakers have been debating whether to give the state’s casinos more financial incentives to compete with the shiny new gambling palaces popping up in Ohio.
MARK BENNETT: Never truer: Knowledge vital to narrowing ‘skills gap’
The pillar at the gates of Faber College in the movie “Animal House” bore a wise motto, despite its tongue-in-cheek intent …
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Pot decriminalization bill dead, but reduced-punishment aspect still alive
In the flurry of activity at the Statehouse in recent weeks, I missed reporting some sad news for stoners: The legislation to decriminalize marijuana is dead.
MARK BENNETT: Great-niece to re-enact Paul Dresser’s musical legacy in Terre Haute show
People can be forgotten. Their lives end, time passes and memories fade.
Often, the only keepers of their legacies are family and friends, who tell and retell their stories, generation to generation.
For Paul Dresser, his fame burned strong enough as a turn-of-the-century, million-seller songwriter to preserve bits of his public notoriety.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The ‘lovely gift’ of a beech tree …
This is not the season that I usually write of trees, for besides a few pin oaks that hang on to the most stubborn of leaves, my woods stand bare and dormant and cold right now. My trees are patiently awaiting the green of spring that I feel, for some reason, is to arrive a little earlier this year than is usual.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: What to do with that $2 billion sitting around
We Hoosiers like to think of ourselves as special, but when it comes to the current debate in the Indiana Statehouse over the budget, we’re a lot like other states: Grappling with some post-recession questions about how to balance spending and taxes.
MARK BENNETT: An Olympic takedown
Imagine an iconic image of American sports history erased.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Pence sticks to his ‘Roadmap’
As a U.S. congressman, Mike Pence made it perfectly clear how he felt about the need for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s ‘skills gap’
A problem lasting decades ceases to be a “problem.” By then, the situation becomes “part of the culture.”
- More News Columns Headlines
- STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Sentencing law could benefit juveniles