~ Posted by Samantha Weinberg, August 6th 2012
There was an unnatural stillness. With seven minutes to go the spectators hunched forward in their seats, tension and expectation etched on their faces. The countdown began: three, two, one...a huge cheer broke out as they punched the air and hugged each other.
For those of us who have been glued to the Olympics for the past ten days, it was a familiar scene. But this action was taking place halfway across the world in the control room of a laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, and the spectators were not sports fans, but the physicists and engineers responsible for the new Mars rover. Curiosity, as the one-tonne, Mini-sized vehicle is named, spent eight months travelling the 350m miles to the red planet, though the "seven minutes of terror" during which it dropped through the atmosphere to the surface were the most tricky—and tense. As Oliver Morton explained in his column The Music of Science in our January/February issue, Curiosity should, over the next weeks, months and years, beam back a vast amount of data that might, at last, provide an answer to David Bowie's time-honoured question: is there (or in this case, was there ever) life on Mars?
But exciting as the landing was—and most of NASA's websites crashed under the weight of interest—Curiosity may not be the only guest on Mars in the years to come. In a warehouse in Stevenage, there is a young pretender to the space exploration crown currently limbering up. The space contractor, Astrium, is developing a European Space Agency (ESA) Mars rover which is due to blast off in 2018.
Last year I visited Bruno, as the prototype is known (his predecessor was Bridget), as he was put through his paces in a room decorated to resemble his final destination. There were panoramic photographs of the Martian landscape around the walls and sand from a quarry in Sandy, Bedfordshire (where else?) on the ground. Most importantly, the ESA rover, which will carry some Russian instruments and share a launch vehicle with a later NASA model, will be superior to Curiosity in several respects. It will have a degree of autonomy over its movements, the on-board computer able to scan the topography of its surroundings and work out by itself how best to negotiate the rocky terrain, instead of relying on instructions from home. That'll make it faster, while the independent suspension on each of its wheels will give it extra agility.
That's if it gets there. In six years' time, when the child of Bruno starts its own descent, I will be glued to the television, watching its progress—or, at least, watching the faces of the watchers.