Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

August 29, 2012

The little rover that could: A curious trek along the seemingly barren Martian soil

I — like most of America — have watched with great interest as the numerous photographs from the NASA rover Curiosity have been beamed back to Earth. To think that we are actually looking at another planet, and a planet that once could have or may have supported life, is fascinating.

I was disappointed when NASA ended their shuttle missions last year. I also was disappointed when President Barack Obama decided to scrap plans for another mission to the moon. As a hopeless fan of all things science fiction, a return trip to the moon seemed logical. So does a lunar colony. Colonizing Mars would be a lot more difficult considering its distance from Earth.

But it’s still amazing to see those Martian images coming back from the red planet. While it appears to be a barren wasteland, the topography of Mars doesn’t look all that different from our own planet. You have hills, plenty of rocks and canyons that could easily be mistaken for a desert in the American Midwest.

And thanks to the wonderful world of technology, we can now see the latest from Mars as raw images sent back from the great beyond are released from NASA. And new photos and videos are being transmitted back home on a regular basis. So far, Curiosity appears to be alone. In another words, nothing on Mars has attacked the little rover — at least not yet. If Mars is in fact barren and lifeless, one must wonder if the red planet ever once supported life — as NASA scientists are trying to learn as part of this costly mission. It has a whopping price tag of $2.5 billion. Could that $2.5 billion be put to better use back home on Earth than having a little robot trekking along the Martian terrain examining rocks and soil? Probably so. We could complete both the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway in southern West Virginia with that $2.5 billion, and build both an equine park and a football stadium (hey, the new Bluefield College Rams need a place to play — right?) and still have millions of dollars to spare. But in the name of science, NASA will argue it is worth every single penny. And in some ways it is hard to argue against this mission.

NASA scientists are eager to search a part of Mars that they think may have once supported water — a key building block for life. Human exploration is apparently a long-term goal of NASA for Mars. Perhaps Curiosity is laying the groundwork for this long-term objective and a future colonization of the Martian soil.

If all goes as planned, the little robot will be spending quite a few months on Mars driving around, examining rocks and sending back cool pictures to NASA. The little rover even has its own Twitter account. So he (or is it a she?) is tweeting from Mars. Or at least that is what we are being led to believe. I’m willing to bet someone at NASA is actually sending those tweets.

The Associated Press reported last week that the little rover is now gearing up for the ultimate road trip. After rolling only about 15 feet to date, Curiosity will soon be taking a much longer trek along the Martian soil. It’s ultimate destination it is Mount Sharp, a towering mountain on Mars. This is where signs of past water are believed to exist, and is considered the starting point in the hunt for the building blocks of life on the red planet. It’s funny how we are now naming certain geographic areas of Mars. Is Mount Obama next?

NASA hopes the Curiosity rover will have more luck than its twin Spirit, which lost contact with Earth back in 2010 after getting stuck in a sand trap. So apparently there are sand traps on Mars as well. The hope is that Curiosity will enjoy more of a sand-trap and glitch-free journey on the red planet.

So where do we go from here? Provided Mars doesn’t attack, and Curiosity finds nothing but a dead planet, do we proceed with plans for a human expedition to Mars? Or should we go back to our own moon? And what does Republican Mitt Romney think about all of this. Obama obviously doesn’t want to go to the moon. He gave the green light for the latest mission to Mars.

Newt Gingrich was vocal in his desire to go back to the moon. But so far Romney hasn’t stated whether he would support further space exploration or not. If he beats Obama this November — which is still a possibility considering the economy and just how close polling is in key swing states like Virginia — it would be interesting to know where he stands in terms of NASA and space exploration. In fact, some of those cherished independent voters who have yet to fully commit to either candidate may be waiting to hear from Romney about Mars and the moon before making a decision on how to vote this November. Then again, maybe not.

Regardless of who wins in November, odds are Curiosity will keep on rolling along the vast Martian soil — barring any unforeseen glitches, sand traps or close encounters with angry Martians on the red planet.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s city editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com.

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