As the world watched NASA's robotic explorer Curiosity take its first steps on Mars, so began the start of a rather human-like relationship with the 2,000-pound rover.
Curiosity began roaming Mars immediately after landing, and will soon start using its tools to measure the chemical, thermal and material makeup of the red planet.
Jordan Evans is an operations manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Before his co-workers even stopped celebrating, he began directing Curiosity’s surface operations on Mars.
Monday, Curiosity sent back the first high resolution images of the crater it will explore over the next two years. In the coming week, Evans and other NASA scientists will receive information gathered by Curiosity on the surface of Mars.
In a way, observers of the rover will be getting to know a robot that mimics scientists from its knowledge of organic chemistry to the way it smells the rocks and minerals it picks up.
“Curiosity can actually taste the air and the surface of the planet,” Evans said. “It can ingest solid samples, scoop soil, and then feed it to the instruments inside.”
The San Diego State University alumnus has worked on the rover for the past seven years. He watched the rover fail and succeed though countless testing exercises. Like many of the scientists seen weeping following Curiosity’s successful landing on Sunday night, Evans is proud of the robot.
“It’s so well-behaved,” he said of the robot’s abilities.
South of the JPL in Pasadena, over 500 space enthusiasts displayed the same pride as they watched the landing from the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
There were so many people in the auditorium Sunday night, the museum had to open an over-flow room for lectures and a viewing of the landing, said Jerry Hilburn, NASA/JPL solar system ambassador, who lectured at Sunday’s event.
“It was awesome,” Hilburn said. “We were cheering at each interval when things appeared to be going right. When we heard [Curiosity] had landed, we were cheering wildly.”
The enthusiasm is rare outside the science and research community in San Diego. But the data collected on this mission over the next two years will determine whether humans can safely join Curiosity on Mars.
And that’s something everyone can get excited about, Hilburn said.
“Curiosity is pure research, but it does pave the way for others to build habitats on Mars,” Hilburn said.
Though NASA’s mission in landing Curiosity wasn’t ultimately to determine if humans will live there, commercial operators will likely use the information gathered to push for their own Mars exploration.
This kind of exploration could be accomplished as early as next year, as entrepreneurs such as Virgin founder Richard Branson prepare to create a human colony on Mars. The Space X project, also, has already sent humans onto the International Space Station.
“Each successful day, we’re getting an opening up of new eyes to Curiosity’s new home on Mars,” Evans said.
A home which many are beginning to see could be their own as well.