Yesterday was a huge day for NASA, especially the men and women at JPL in California, because it was the day marked for the next rover to go to Mars, called “Curiosity”, to take her first steps since having her wheels fitted. And the whole thing was shown live, online, for space enthusiasts around the world to enjoy!
Until relatively recently I think it’s fair to say that “Curiosity” has been, basically, a big white box with lots of interesting-looking things sticking out of it. But earlier this week her wheels were rolled for the first time, and last night – UK time – the clean room at JPL was packed with white bunny-suited engineers and techs to witness the rover’s first drive. It was only a short drive, just a meter or so, but it was hugely important, and, yes, historic, because it marked Curiosity’s first steps on her long journey to, and eventually across, Mars.
As I said, the whole thing was beamed to the world live, via the Ustream streaming video channel, and I was one of several hundred people who followed the First Drive on my computer monitor. It was, actually, great fun. Ustream has a screen split between the live “show”, and, to its right, another area showing a “chat window”, where the people viewing the show can post messages and hold conversations with each other. I say “conversations”; at first last night’s chat was a combination of newcomers asking “What’s that?” “Have I missed the drive yet?” and other questions like that, and informed comments and questions from the more clued-in viewers.
For the first hour and a half of the Ustream broadcast there wasn’t much to see – just Curiosity, centre stage, standing on a rather funky blue mat… thing… with a blue light on a pole blinking away behind her, and various engineers and techs, looking very scientific and serious in their white coverall suits, walking and wandering through the field of view. Whenever one of these people appeared, walking across the room or kneeling down beside the rover to pose for a photo with it, jokey comments would be posted about them, often encouraging them to give us all a wave…
So they started to! 🙂 One waved, then another, then another guy gave a bow to the camera! 🙂
That would have been funny enough, cos it was a nice personal touch from the MSL team to show that they were watching the Ustream coverage too, and appreciated everyone’s support. But then it went further.
Suddenly the engineers were being asked to do a silly walk or even a dance as they crossed the floor. No way. right? Wrong! 🙂 A couple actually joined in, and one guy, one brilliant guy, even did a “Robot Dance” for the camera, which was just a fantastic demonstration of the fact that the hugely-intelligent engineers and techs who work on these multi-billion dollar missions are all human too, and like a laugh with the rest of us! 🙂
(Sadly they didn’t take up my suggestion that they should all gather around the rover and sing “Greased Lightning!” from Grease, complete with all the moves, but that will take some rehearsing, so maybe next time! 😉 )
But eventually the serious stuff began. We knew it was about to begin because suddenly the clean room was FULL of people, and the lighting changed to a much cleaner, crisper light. Watched by a dozen others, two techs moved towards the rear of Curiosity and gingerly picked up her very complicated looking cable –
And the next thing we knew, she was moving! Curiosity was moving across the floor, only slowly, but surely. She was alive!! 🙂
(animations by The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla)
What a moment that was! As all of us watching cheered, the techs on the ground cheered and clapped and punched the air, too. The Ustream feed let us heer the cheers and claps in the viewing gallery above the clean room, further adding to the atmosphere.
Over the next hour or so, Curiosity drove a few more times, just back and forth, back and forth…
She didn’t, to the disappointment of many, turn in a circle, but that will come soon, I’m sure. What mattered was that she drove for the first time, and were were all allowed to watch it, thanks to NASA’s and JPL’s generosity and great public outreach. Soon, I gather, there’ll be a live webcam set up at JPL so people can watch Curiosity “coming together”, which will be fantastic!
So, a milestone reached, and passed; Curiosity has driven for the first time. There’s still a loooong way to go before she starts to drive across Mars, but she’s on her way. So far those wheels have only driven a few metres over a clean, blue, anti-static mat, but in a couple of years time, all being well, they’ll be scrunching and crunching their way across a rocky landscape, as Curiosity beams back stunning images of boulders, rocks and a huge pink sky – and who knows what else?
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