Miguel San Martin remembers exactly when he decided he wanted to be a space engineer: “It was on a cold Winter’s night in 1976, looking up at the sky at my parent’s farm while I listened to the BBC on short wave reporting the arrival of the Viking mission to Mars.”
San Martin was 17 at the time and living in his native Argentina. Little did he know then that over two decades later he would be working on NASA’s next Mars project: the Pathfinder mission (1997).
The American space agency hired the aeronautics and astronautics expert right after he completed his Master’s degree at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Now, after 27 years at NASA, San Martin faces his largest challenge to date, as the Curiosity rover –launched last November- reaches the Red Planet, after a more than 354 million mile voyage.
As the head of Guidance, Navigation and Control at the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Project, San Martin is responsible for Curiosity’s safe landing on Mars, on Monday, August 6.
It’s no easy feat: Curiosity is not only NASA’s most sophisticated rover, carrying 10 of the agency’s most advanced scientific instruments.
It’s also the largest and the heaviest space vehicle created by the American agency, doubling the size of its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity (launched in 2003).
This means that NASA had to redesign its landing procedure, as the system of inflatable bags used to deposit the previous rovers on the surface of the Red Planet could not withstand Curiosity’s approximately 9.8 foot length and almost 1 ton weight.
That’s where San Martin’s expertise came in. He and his team designed the software that will allow Curiosity to reach Mars in an extremely complex automatic landing procedure that has never been used before.
“Many people think that I’ll be controlling Curiosity with a joystick, as though I was playing a video game, but nothing could be further from the truth,” said San Martin to BBC Mundo from his home in Los Angeles.
In fact, not only will the landing be completely automatic, San Martin and the rest of his crew won’t even be able to follow the event as it unfolds.
Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, there is a 14 minute delay between the neighboring planets.
In addition to the time delay, the NASA team will also have limited feedback to what is going on in space. They won’t have a visual. Their only clues will come from coded information sent by nearby satellites and a radio frequency that changes tones when different mechanisms are activated.
At about 5:30 GMT, when Curiosity is expected to reach Mars, the experts will be holding their breaths for seven minutes, as the most difficult part of the mission takes place.
That is the time it will take for the rover to exit its safety capsule attached to a rocket-powered crane that will carry it down to its destination: the Gale Crater, one of the deepest places on Mars.
“We call it the seven minutes of hell,” confesses San Martin. “Curiosity will reach Mars’s atmosphere at a speed of approximately 13,000 mi/h and seven minutes later it must land safely on the ground.”
For that to happen, all 76 mechanisms involved in the landing process must go off without a glitch.
Curiosity’s mission –if it manages to land in one piece- will be to study the crater’s rocks, in search of clues that might indicate if life could have occurred on the Red Planet sometime in the past.
Many are hopeful that the $2.5bn project might answer a question that has haunted scientists for centuries: Is the Earth the only place that could harbor life?It’s an enigma that San Martin has wanted to solve ever since he was a boy.
However, the NASA veteran warns that the success of the Curiosity mission might ultimately depend on luck.
“We try our best to pick the right spot to carry out our investigations but finding places where life could have occurred based on the limited information we have is more an art than a science,” points out the Argentine space engineer.
Assuring Curiosity’s safe landing on Mars will also be partly left to chance.
“We’ve calculated all the known risks, things that we know that we can’t control, like the wind factor,” said San Martin. “But what keeps me up at night are the unknown unknowns: those unpredictable things that could ruin the mission.”
Despite the warning, San Martin is optimistic everything will go as planned. As a sign of confidence, he’s even picked the L.A. bar where he and his team will celebrate all night once Curiosity is firmly placed on red land.
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Aaron Schachter: Now here’s an impressive feat, an 8 month journey of over 350 million miles. That’s how far NASA’s latest interplanetary rover has traveled to reach Mars. The rover is called Curiosity, it’s the size of a compact car and carries its own chemistry lab that can shoot laser beams and analyze rocks. Curiosity is due to land on the red planet Sunday night, it’s all part of a multi-billion dollar space mission that involves teams from the US, Russia, France and Spain. One of the most daring aspects of the mission is the landing, here’s actor William Shatner describing it in a NASA Video.
William Shatner: When she arrives at Mars, Curiosity has 7 minutes to go from 13,000 miles an hour to a soft landing. These so called 7 minutes of terror, encompass a sequence of steps that we can not control or even witness in real time, because signals take 14 minutes to reach Earth from Mars. Curiosity’s heat shield burning at nearly 3 thousand degrees Fahrenheit will protect the rover as she slows down rapidly. On the way down, the space craft fires thrusters to stay on target for Gale crater.
[End of Audio Clip]
Schachter: Now after those steps there’s still a parachute that needs to open, a heat shield that flies off, and on and on until a pyrotechnic device severs the rover from its jet pack on the ground. Whew, it sounds like science fiction but Miguel San Martin assures us it’s all true, he’s the guidance, navigation and control chief engineer at the Mars Science Laboratory Project in Pasadena, Miguel c’mon, between you and me, this is nuts isn’t it?
Miguel San Martin: It, A little bit, but.
San Martin: Calling of mind says, product of rational thought, [laughs] but, uhm, during constraints by the laws of physics, I mean you come in at that velocity, you need to stop the machine, and that’s what you need to do.
Schachter: Now, as we heard in the video, Curiosity will land in something called the Gale crater.
San Martin: Correct.
Schachter: Uh, why that particular place?
San Martin: Well it’s the result of a very interesting process that I, that we witnessed, as engineers. Where the scientists have to pick the right place to go, we as engineers, we give them certain conditions, so given that the scientists met, the scientists from all over the world, and they chose the Gale crater which is really exciting, because you have this mountain in the center that is 4 km, or 5km mountain that is made out of strata for many, many years. It has a whole history of Mars, in different layers of material, so the scientists described that once the rover starts to analyze the layers at the bottom and it goes uphill, essentially it’s like reading a book.
Schachter: Now, Uh, for many scientists who work with NASA, it is a dream come true, to either go into space themselves or, you know, work on rockets that get up into space. You have an amazing story yourself. You grew up in Argentina and at one point dreamed of working for NASA. How did that happen?
San Martin: Well, you know, I was interested in engineering since I can remember. I grew up in the sixties, the space program was at its peak, which I followed, you know. So I actually followed the landing of Viking, I just happened to be in my family’s farm in the Patagonia when that took place. So, the only thing I had was an AM radio that I used to listen to the BBC reporting on the mission, and then I remember that the transmission ended and the next morning I found out of the great success, so, for me, that was, I want to be part of that, and I was lucky enough that I was able to do it.
Schachter: Miguel the rover lands on Mars Sunday night, we’re told about 10:30 p.m. on the west coast.
San Martin: Correct.
Schachter: Will you get any sleep Sunday night, do you think?
San Martin: Uhm, probably not, I mean, this business being 99.9% right, or in other words 0.1% wrong, it might not be enough. On paper it looks awesome, the statistics of success and our simulations they give us plenty of margin in the system, but it, just that little thing, can give us a bad day.
Schachter: Miguel San Martin is the guidance, navigation, and control chief engineer at the Mars Science Laboratory Project in Pasadena, California, Sunday night if all goes well he will land Curiosity on Mars. Miguel, thank you so much.
San Martin: Thank you.
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