In October 02013, NASA engineer Adam Steltzner spoke to the Long Now about landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. A decade of exhausted alternatives led Seltzner’s team to take the unconventional approach of a mini-rocket “sky crane” controlled by artificial intelligence to guide the rover to the Martian surface. Because the crane could not be tested on Earth, NASA would have to brave a $2.5 billion attempt on Mars to know it was successful. A 4×12 mile landing target at the Gale Crater left virtually no margin for error. It was a tense moment for martian space travel, which historically has a 42% mission success rate.
It also made for compelling entertainment. Curiosity’s successful landing in August 02012 was a global event witnessed by millions, aided no doubt by a NASA social media campaign that included Curiosity video games, humorous tweets delivered in first-person by the rover, and “seven minutes of terror” ads that framed the descent as a high-stakes action film unfolding live before viewers’ eyes.
Guess who just got an “attitude adjustment”? My mood’s fine; I needed to reposition my medium-gain antenna for Earth communication
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) July 19, 2012
A tweet from @MarsCuriosity ahead of landing on Mars.
28 Months on Mars, a new visual storytelling project from the New York Times, provides a window into what Curiosity has been up to since the dramatic landing. An HTML5 multimedia timeline weaves together patchwork snapshots taken by the rover with three-dimensional renderings of the martian landscape, immersing viewers in the bumpy twists and turns of Curiosity’s journey through the dried lakebed of the Gale Crater as it seeks to answer whether Mars could ever have supported life.
Wheels show gashed wear and tear after five miles on the unforgiving Gale Crater terrain. An unexpected week-long hiatus occurs when Curiosity has to troubleshoot a software update downloaded from Earth. Drilling samples at the Mojave rock outcrop reveal rice-shaped salt crystals (picture above) that suggest a past cycle of wet and dry conditions necessary for supporting microbial life. And at each noteworthy moment, Curiosity takes a selfie.
The project is part of a growing trend in space exploration to use social media and short-form visual storytelling to engage the public and make the challenges and rewards of decades-long space missions more accessible.
Other recent efforts show the potential of short-form media to bring out the long-term narrative of extended scientific endeavors in space: NASA’s Global Selfie campaign for Earth Day 02014 resulted in over 50,000 submissions from 113 countries, and Astronomy Pic of the Day, a NASA project that shares daily photographs of the cosmos, has upwards of a million followers on Twitter. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield became a pop culture phenomenon through his social media dispatches from the International Space Station; and the European Space Agency has said November 02014’s Rosetta Comet landing (whose hashtag, #cometlanding, was trending globally for days) marked a “watershed” in the agency’s efforts to connect with the public.
Experience 28 Months on Mars here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/12/09/science/space/curiosity-rover-28-months-on-mars.html?_r=1