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Are You Curious?

Everyone’s curious about Curiosity. This little Mars rover has everyone excited in ways Spirit and Opportunity never did. It’s eclipsed the combined starshine of Mars 1-7, the Mariners, the Vikings, even Sojourner, the very first Mars rover. Why are we all gaga for Curiosity?

There are probably many reasons for Curiosity’s celebrity. First off the Internet makes it easy to find and read news of its activities. Spirit and Opportunity landed in 2004. Facebook was born a month later, too soon for it to be the gossip mongerer that creates the kind of fame Curosity enjoys. Twitter was just a twinkle in Jack Dorsey’s eye at that time. Sure, we had newsites galore in 2004, but none gave us the virality of social media.

I think it’s more than just the Internet’s ability to spread the word, though. I think people find Curiosity cute. People are getting used to non-humanoid robots endowed with personality. We find humanity in everything and we’re way beyond AI that has to look like Jude Law before we get cozy. Steampunk got us used to the warmth of brass and rivets. We have mechanical devices for avatars now. Characters from novels blog, so do pet rocks. It’s easy for us to find steel plates and laser beams cuddly these days. That wasn’t so true back in ’04.

IMHO, the real reason Curiosity is so popular is NASA’s unabashed search for life this time around. Certainly the search for ET has always been in the back of every mission’s mind from Mercury and Gemini all the way to Space Shuttle. It’s too important not to think about it. Finding signs of life beyond the beyond would be a game changer, as big as discovering the world is not only flat but not the center of the universe. Discovering life on worlds other than Earth would be the final nail in the coffin of the anthropocentric worldview.

If we can prove we are not alone, well…you fill in the blank; I dare not.

At any rate, NASA is no longer beating around the finding-life-as-a-reason-for-spending-the-taxpayer’s-money bush. Curiosity’s primary mission is to determine the habitability of Mars. Oh sure there are other goals: testing of the latest equipment, pushing the rover’s roving capabilities to the limit, and to be sure, determining habitability is not the same as finding a couple of microbes, even fossils of microbes. Knowing whether or not life could exist there, is not nearly as important as actually finding it. But so far Curiosity is the best bet so far for getting close to the brass ring.

We all want to know if Mars ever supported life. That fact would be a game changer. Nobel prizes have been awarded for less. And that’s why we’re all watching Curiosity’s progress.

I am as excited as everyone else. Here’s a short faq I put together searching for answers to my own questions:

1) When did it land? A: 5 August 2012.
2) What did it see once the smoke cleared? A: See the picture from from NASA’s website:

3) What has it been doing? A: Driving; Sampling the soil and Testing the weather; Extending its arm.
4) How long will Curiosity be on Mars? A: 23 months
5) What will it be doing in the coming months? A: Driving, sampling, testing, extending its arm.
6) What nationalities are involved: A: U.S., Spain, Russia, probably others I have no knowledge of.
7) What will happen to it when its mission is accomplished? It will continue to drive, sample, test, and extend until the harsh Martian elements destroy it.

To follow Curiosity’s exploits before the Martian Apocalypse turns it into a pile of rusty bits, tune in to the Twitter stream: @MarsCuriosity.

Thanks for reading,

Sue Lange
Sue Lange’s short story “Tige is the Man” is available for free at the Nature science journal site!

This essay was first posted at the Book View Cafe blog on August 28, 2012.

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