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.
- Local & Bistate
Purdue shooting leaves one person dead
A Purdue University engineering student opened fire inside a basement classroom Tuesday, killing a teaching assistant and prompting officials to put the campus on lockdown, police and the university said.
You’re home now
To say that Michael Curry was stressed is an understatement.
THS grad Miller among students in adjacent building when shooting occurs
Kris Miller and his roommate were in a computer lab of Purdue’s mechanical engineering building Tuesday when they received a call that a shooting had occurred next door.
Bosma moves gay marriage ban bill to friendlier committee
Republican House of Representatives Speaker Brian Bosma sent a bill that proposes a constitutional ban on gay marriage to a more conservative-leaning legislature committee Tuesday, because it lacked support on the first committee to which it was assigned.
We enter the deep freeze again
If you had to step outside to get your newspaper this morning, you might have noticed it’s painfully cold once again.
Levy redirects school funds
If the new “protected levy” legislation goes into effect later this year, it would mean “a substantial reduction” in revenue for Vigo County School Corp. bus transportation, capital projects and bus replacement funds, according to the district’s chief financial officer.
School debt levy redirects funds across Indiana
School officials and state legislators from around the state are searching for ways to keep the school buses running — and children safe on the streets — pending the loss of millions of dollars for school transportation.
More than 50 school districts in Indiana stand to lose at least 20 percent of their revenues for transportation, new buses and other big-ticket projects under a new law that requires them to first pay off their debts.
VIDEO: Sen. Donnelly updates T-S editorial board
Passage of a long overdue U.S. farm bill could be completed by the end of this month, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said Tuesday.
Vigo coroner tries again for salary increase
After being denied last year, Vigo County Coroner Dr. Susan Amos is again seeking to have her county salary increased to match that of several other county office holders.
‘Ups and downs’ in the Statehouse
As state legislators head into the final week of the state legislative session, five of them from the Wabash Valley met with citizens Saturday at the Vigo County Public Library in downtown Terre Haute and engaged in conversation about the “ups and downs” of the recent session.
Finding what the kids need
One Saturday morning event in Terre Haute aimed to raise awareness about the resources available to people with disabilities.
Spotting pot, gun in home nets 2 arrests.
Two adults were arrested and two children removed from a Vigo County home on Friday after drugs and a handgun with altered serial numbers were discovered in the home, authorities said.
HUMAN RIGHTS DAY: Focus on poverty, inequality
The issues of poverty and inequality will be at the forefront of the 13th annual Terre Haute Human Rights Day on March 18 at Indiana State University.
Tasting their way to a cure
People appeared to be in high spirits Friday inside the historic Indiana Theatre as they gathered for an evening of wine, food and conversation while supporting efforts to find a cure for breast cancer.
Same-sex marriage: 4 couples sue state over ban
Four gay couples from southern Indiana sued the state Friday, seeking to force Indiana to recognize same-sex marriages from out of state and issue licenses to same-sex couples.
Time to check smoke alarms
Three years after a house fire on South Nine Street in Terre Haute resulted in the death of three people, a Terre Haute grandmother still wonders if the outcome of that fire would have been different if smoke detectors in the home had been working.
Indiana State Board extends president’s contract
Indiana State University has signed up Dan Bradley, the school’s president, for an additional three years of service.
New animal shelter gets welcome boost
The aging Terre Haute Humane Society shelter is not a place for the faint of heart.
4 couples sue Indiana over same-sex marriage ban
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Four couples from southern Indiana are asking a federal judge to force the state to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Vigo County Jail Log: March 7, 2014
The following individuals were booked into the Vigo County Jail by area law enforcement on Thursday and Friday, based on jail records.
Bill for welfare drug testing in negotiation
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Two Indiana lawmakers trying to pass a bill requiring drug tests for some welfare recipients say they have passed voluntary drug tests.
Book signing March 7 in Crossroads Café to benefit Success By 6
The book “One Day I Could Be ... Careers in the Wabash Valley,” is on sale now and will be available at a book signing today, March 7, during a First Friday event in downtown Terre Haute.
Groups ask regulators to probe plant’s power woes
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Environmental and citizens’ groups are asking Indiana regulators to launch a formal investigation into problems and delays that have sharply limited the power output of Duke Energy’s $3.5 billion coal-gasification plant near Edwardsport.
Nature trust expands Owen-Putnam State Forest
POLAND, Ind. (AP) — State officials say funding from the Bicentennial Nature Trust has helped the Indiana Department of Natural Resources expand a central Indiana state forest by 84 acres.
Vigo County high school team in FIRST Robotics’ Crossroads Regional
Drivers of remote-controlled robots will match skills, similar to those used in basketball and soccer, to score in the FIRST Robotics’ Crossroads Regional on the campus of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
Benefit planned for daycare fire victim
Veronica Gray never met 19-month-old Emma Lloyd, but when she learned about the child’s tragic death in a Sullivan day care fire, she had to do something.
Winter’s costs add up for Vigo
While still within county and city budgets, the snowstorms of January and February were more costly than a year ago.
Mayor Bennett threatens veto of consultant funding
Mayor Duke Bennett is threatening to veto a measure before the Terre Haute City Council that would transfer money into the council’s budget allowing the body to again hire a financial consultant.
Semitrailer fire slows eastbound traffic on Interstate 70
Traffic on Interstate 70 was slowed Thursday afternoon by a semitrailer fire just east of Terre Haute.
Tests show Skittles had no unusual chemicals
The Indiana State Health Department has given Skittles a clean bill of health.
- More Local & Bistate Headlines
- Purdue shooting leaves one person dead