Friday, February 19, 2021

Happy Friday

Best wishes and hopes for a speedy recovery for the people of Texas who had to suffer through not only a severe cold snap and snow storm that curtailed power, froze the water pipes, and killed a number of people, but they also have to put up with the bullshit that their elected officials threw at them by blaming wind turbines (less than 7% of their power source) or just plain lit out for the beach at Cancun, only to be shamed into coming back home even though there’s not much a senator can do about it.  It’s all in the appearances, and Ted Cruz is a Gorgon as far as that’s concerned.

It has given us a good reason to hope that at last we’re going to have Infrastructure Week.

Meanwhile, NASA is doing what NASA does best.

NASA rover Perseverance landed safely Thursday on Mars to begin an ambitious mission to search for signs of past Martian life and obtain samples of soil and rock that could someday be hauled back to Earth for study in laboratories.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” announced Swati Mohan, the guidance and control operations lead for the mission at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Cheers, clapping and fist-pumps erupted in the control room, which was half-empty because of the coronavirus pandemic. Someone shouted: “TRN, TRN,” referring to the terrain relative navigation system that allowed Perseverance to land in a rugged area full of natural hazards.

Perseverance, the first multibillion-dollar NASA mission to Mars in nine years, quickly produced two low-resolution images of the landing site — a forlorn landscape pocked with small craters. Dust kicked up by the landing covered the glass shields on the cameras. The pair of photos showed the rover casting a shadow on the Martian landscape.

Charlie Pierce:

Throwing a dart 128 million miles and hitting the bullseye is really worth celebrating. The new Mars rover Perseverance did exactly what it was supposed to do. It landed, softly, in the Jezero Crater, which is probably an ancient river delta and now, for the next two years, it will look for fossilized pond scum, which would be the most important pond scum in the history of pond scum, which goes back to the beginning of time, both here and there.

[…]

It’s hard to explain to people too young to have lived through it what it was like when what was then called The Space Race was going on. It wasn’t just the astronauts, although they certainly commanded the stage. It was all the failed attempts to land anything on the moon, all those Pioneers and Lunas that failed to achieve Earth orbit or flamed out if they did. Finally, on September 12, 1959, the Russian Luna 2 hit the moon, which was all it was supposed to do. It took another five years for the U.S. to match that feat, when this country managed to hit the moon with Ranger 4. In 1966, Surveyor 1 landed and sent data back for two months before going dark.

And there were adventures elsewhere, too. Mariner 2 flew by Venus while, in 1970, the Russians landed a probe there. Mariner 4 flew by Mars and Mariner 10 flew by Mercury. By 1988, the USSR had collapsed, and the U.S. had the cosmos to itself. The Pioneers and Voyagers explored Jupiter and beyond. The machines always took the back seat to men, but the machines were our eyes in so many distant, wonderful places. We often need prompting to lift our eyes to the sky, but we almost never regret it when we do.

I remember when I was in grade school in the early 1960’s they would wheel in a TV on a cart to the gym so we could watch the grainy black-and-white pictures of the launch of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, when going to space was still the stuff of science fiction. We made it to the moon, and then turned our dreams of space travel over to Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas. But NASA and JPL and the proud nerds who devote their lives to searching for signs of ancient life in the dried-up ponds on our next-door neighbor are continuing the mission we as humans have always had: looking for life, and even if all we find is fossilized microbe poop, it’s evidence that that we’re not just a one-time knock-off; that we’re not alone, even if they can’t answer back.

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