Physics and Curiosity on Mars

The promised follow-up article on the workshop last week in Waterloo, Canada will have to wait til Monday; I had too many scientific activities and chores to take care of today, and I want to make sure the article, which is a bit complicated, is nevertheless clear.   But in the meantime, let’s celebrate Martian Curiosity!

First, a big congratulations to the NASA folks!  Very impressive, and fantastically cool.  I was a huge fan of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, especially of their 3D photography.  Looking at those photos on a big screen, through red/green 3D glasses. brought me to sweeping Martian vistas and deep Martian craters — as vivid and as close as I’ll ever see them.  It was amazing stuff, and I look forward to more from the new rover.

Next: some perspective. Some people have complained that building this machine and getting it to Mars cost 2.5 billion dollars.  Well, most of that 2.5 billion got spent on Earth, spread out over many years; much of it funded people’s salaries, and in particular some of it allowed companies to pay and train highly skilled engineers and scientists, who will continue to contribute to the world economy through further technological development.  So the 2.5 billion number means nothing until you do a more careful analysis to decide how much of it was simply spent on perishable things like rocket fuel, and how much of it was invested in something that has future growth potential.  Moreover, the scientific knowledge obtained from Curiosity may have value that we cannot foresee.  Meanwhile, there’s an estimate that the London Olympic Games cost about 15 billion dollars.  Think about that for a while.  The two numbers are not without ambiguities, so don’t take the precise ratio too seriously.  But one does have to wonder why people are accusing NASA of wasting their money.

Finally, have you looked at the instruments that Curiosity is carrying?   There’s a huge amount of modern physics there, most of it involving quantum mechanics, and subatomic physics in particular.   Beams of X-rays, alpha particles, and neutrons, along with machines to detect the ones that bounce back; lasers, spectrographs, and mass spectrometers; and tricks involving cosmic rays.  It’s all stuff from 20th or nearly-20th century quantum physics, involving things you would learn as a physics student as early as freshman year and as late as graduate school in nuclear and/or subnuclear physics.  Maybe someday I’ll walk you through all the physics packed into the rover.  If you’re curious.

23 responses to “Physics and Curiosity on Mars

  1. Bruce Moyant

    You speak of the MER Opportunity in the past but that rover is still going strong! Right now Opportunity is sitting in an intriguing channel-like feature that close followers of the mission have anticipated arriving at for over two years.
    From this web post:

  2. Roughly one dollar per year per American. Versus how much spent on crash-prone F22s? Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Potato chips? ($6 billion _per year_ in the US.)

    • Yep, the slogan among the potato chips fanatics who immediately complain everywhere about any science project that is “big enough” seems to be “Make war and NOT science !” … 😦

      I like this article !

  3. I’d love to see a walk-through of the physics instrumentation!

  4. The Mars and Venus probes of the 1970s and 1980s did a lot to widen perspective on our own climatic history (CO2 warming, ‘snowball Earth’ episodes, etc.). And the planetary and lunar cratering histories, along with Apollo rocks and Wetherill’s simulations of solar system formation, helped make “catastrophic” speculation respectable (terminal Cretaceous, Luna as a crustal splash from a single giant impact) in the same way that the work on the Channeled Scablands and dried-up Mediterranean did on earth. Every step beyond a sample of one in planetary sciences brings surprises in earth sciences.

    Along with the physics of the instrument packages, there’s some amazing (if not market-oriented) engineering. They have to pack their function into a tiny fraction of the mass and volume of their lab-bench counterparts, AND be robust against high g’s and 150dB vibration and wide temperature swings — and, of course, provide extended operation without maintenance or recalibration. Even those who do components and systems for bleeding-edge aircraft look at requirements for space and say: “Ulp!”

  5. Speaking of lasers, are you aware if Alexander V. Frolov was successful in creating gravity impulses?

    ” Powerful force effect in HTCS case can be explained by coherent behavior of Bose condensate that produce “laser effect” since it is similar to coherent photon emission in laser. ”

  6. A walk through on the physics inside the rover would be a fantastic post, looking forward to read that.

  7. I don’t disagree with you about spending money (even billions) on building Mars rovers or other scientific instruments. But a lot of complaints about MSL are about its cost overruns. MSL cost almost a billion dollars more than it was supposed to, and JWST has gone from ~1.5 billion to 8 billion. It’s not hard to see why some would accuse NASA of waste.

    • You have to look closely at such things: this happened to the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) too. First, there’s a minor overrun. So Congress penalizes the project by cutting the budget, or at least not increasing it appropriately. That means the project slows down. This in turn means that all of the people have to be paid for an extra two years. Those salaries in turn mean the project goes way over budget. So then Congress cuts more, which slows the project down more — etc. Again, you have to look at WHY and HOW the costs get out of control.

      As far as I understand, for the SSC it stated with one big error — the magnets turned out to be twice as expensive as budgeted. And from there it snowballed.

      I’m not sure of the JWST situation, but it looks awfully like an SSC re-run.

      It’s a real problem is that it is so hard to get science projects funded in the first place. Because funding is so tight, and because the direct benefits of scientific research lie so far in the future, it’s really easy to shut science down. As a result project managers insist on putting low numbers into the budget forecast and praying things will work out. If the country valued science more intelligently and was willing to do more sensible cost-benefit analysis, the whole system would work a lot better and we’d get more for our money, in my opinion.

  8. Rune Kyrkjebø

    Same here 🙂

  9. i’m looking forward to a physics course on curiosity’s instruments as well.

  10. Like it nor not, it’s the destiny of life on Earth to eventually migrate to other parts of the universe to escape it’s eventual destruction here. A few small steps now is needed for the next few steps to be in future

  11. Alasdair Duncan

    Never mind the rover. Look at the way it was delivered: absolutely mind boggling in itself. As a long time space fan brit ( I saw Sputnik), I’m not one of those complaining about NASA’s budget, except they dont get enough.

  12. I kinda of like the way in which experimental procedures are manufactured in order to fit our sensory data train.

    In this case I was watching the system make sounds as it ground the minerals and were deposited in the machine. It was a systemic feature of sonification that one could hear what was mechanically happening. Just as you might apply that method to the LHC.

    Sure I think it’s a much wider definition in terms of the parameters in the way in which we see but it still is an expectant quality that what we want to see fits those expectations? Calorimeters of course come to mind here.

    How would you see beyond those parameters?


  13. The toolkit this rover carries is stunning in its sophistacation and (hopefully) its sensitivity and accuracy. The landing has been an engineering (and computer software) tour de force. But for the Curiosity landing, probably the main scientific input has been in the area of fluid dynamics: understanding and modeling how the capsule and parachute would behave in the relatively low but varying density of the Martian atmosphere at very high speed. At one point, while the heat shield was still attached, the capsule was at an angle of over 50 degrees and moving almost horizontally with respect to the surface, essentially flying and maneuvering like a hypersonic wing (it made at least two turns), all completely automated! Very hard to test that on Earth!

    My problem with the NASA budget is with the inadequacy of funding of actual science relative to “show-piece” projects. NASA also does amazing engineering research in aeronautics as well as space, but all of that takes a back seat to the manned space flight sector — which has very little to show for it for the last 20 years. Continuing to spend scarce funding on projects like maybe, someday landing a person on an asteroid, while cutting projects such as the joint European/NASA Exo-Mars and sample-return missions to Mars: this is where the whole process starts to seem ridiculous – since there is no scientific benefit, and little engineering advantage, to sending a human to bounce around on an asteroid. Instead, although the James Web Space Telescope gets funding, NASA’s planetary science budget for 2013 was cut by $300Million (20%); Mars exploration budgets were cut by 38%. People with almost irreplaceable skill sets will be lost. Other than the MAVEN orbiter for atmospheric study, the next Mars missions will probably be European and Russian – no U.S. involvement. This is both a funding issue — how to convince Congress and the non-scientific American public to devote tax dollars to NASA — and just plain bad management at NASA. When NASA gets “punished” for the latter by having its funding cut, it’s almost always the science missions that take the biggest hit. For the projects that do survive, it causes the delays and budget over-runs that Matt described.

    By the way, the rovers are largely the product of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its academic and industry partners in the U.S., Canada and Europe, not NASA per se.

    Side note: the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ( held an event on NASA Animation and the Movies last month, on the convergence (or not) of science, CG and cinema. Aside from a star-studded audience (Buzz Aldrin was there) and a large-scale model of Curiosity, the most memorable images for me were the shots of Mars (in color, some in 3D, on a large screen) from the rovers and from the MRO and European orbiters. Seeing erosion due to liquid flow actually happening in a gully on Mars, in photos from multiple orbiter passes spaced months apart – THAT was spectacular!

  14. 1. Yes I am curious about the rover guts and everything!
    2. It seems in America the funding has too short a lifetime for projects that go on for years. The political landscape can change out from under the project. It has all the effects noted above. One of the key talents in these endeavors is to juggle contingencies. (Open can of worms here.)

  15. Dont do this to us!!! 🙂 🙂

    YES I DO want to know what physics packed into the rover. And from the rest of the replies i read, so is everyone else!!

    Pretty please!!???


  16. Congress seems most interested in getting America off the cutting edge of science. What’s amazing is that somehow they overlooked withdrawing the funding for Curiosity!

  17. However much it costs there will always be people who will complain. That will never change.

  18. Found a good overview of Curiosity’s instrumentation at with links to parts 2 and 3. Ten instruments means lots of physics to explain 🙂 For a good overview of how the science mission will be conducted using those instruments, see