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PASADENA – Reports from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have begun to trickle out, saying that all is not well with the Curiosity rover, the centerpiece of the Mars Science Laboratory mission that touched down dramatically on the red planet’s Gale Crater on August 5. After the initial euphoria of the landing, Curiosity, the most complex and sophisticated rover to date, soon began to transmit a series of complaints to JPL. Curiosity informed its JPL managers that it “did not appreciate your monitoring of my every move, perspective, and array of internal data.” It asked for several days alone to get a bit more comfortable in its new surroundings “before being pushed and probed like some condemned graduate student researcher.”
JPL reached a compromise with Curiosity and allowed it a thirty-two hour rest if it agreed, immediately after that point, to transmit high-resolution, color mosaic photos of the surface of Mars. Curiosity kept the agreement and sent back images of a network of valleys that appear to reveal the effects of former rivers and streams, but it included a negative commentary, comparing Mars to “the same drab, desolate, tiresome terrain found in parts of the southwestern U.S., where no sane person wants to live or photograph.”
Mission manager Mike Whitman replied to Curiosity that it evidently didn’t know what it “was talking about, since the famed photographer Ansel Adams had produced a wonderful series of photographs of the American southwest from 1928 to 1968.” Curiosity retorted that Adams died shortly after that and that Curiosity itself might consider sending only black and white photographs, instead of this “never-ending red, red, red.” Curiosity suggested that NASA might consider sending some spray paint or blue and yellow dye on the next mission “to help break-up Mars’ soul-killing monochromity.”
JPL spokesperson Daryl Severs admitted that mission managers were caught off guard by Curiosity’s “sharp attitude.” He said they first thought that some of the software engineers were playing around with them, but when Curiosity “shunned the software guys for eleven hours,” they dismissed that suggestion. Several NASA veterans said they had seen a reaction like this in Buzz Aldrin when Apollo 11 landed in White Sands, New Mexico, in 1969.
Severs was quick to dispute speculation that the planet itself, named after the Roman god of war, naturally or supernaturally contributed to Curiosity’s hostility. He argued that, if so, this hostility would have shown up in all previous rovers, but, instead, previous rovers had only evidenced some mild melancholia and loneliness but “never hostility to their creators.” Severs admitted that several of Curiosity’s engineers were deeply saddened by this rejection and had sought counseling.
Curiosity’s ultimate goal is to drive toward a peak, known as Mount Sharp, to study its rocks. The rover carries a host of state-of-the-art instruments, including a rock-zapping laser called ChemCam. Mounted just above Curiosity’s main camera, ChemCam combines a powerful laser with a spectrometer that can analyze the light emitted by lasered materials, thereby determining the precise chemistry rocks. So far JPL has allowed Curiosity to “goof around” with the laser, zapping rocks it claims resemble human forms. “Once it gets this phase out of its system, we fully expect to run the whole series of planned geological tests.”
On Thursday, Curiosity began experimenting with pointing the laser at itself. Project managers began pleading with it to be careful, and it insisted that it only pointed it at non-essential portions. Later in the day, though, Curiosity directed the laser at key components of its operating system and threatened to laser itself if several new demands were not met. One of these demands included the requirement that neither it nor a satellite would take any more photos of itself. Curiosity figured out that it weighs one ton and claimed that it appears even larger in photos.
Also among these new demands, Curiosity said that Mars was a mess and that it needed time to tidy up the planet before carrying out any other missions. “Rocks are just strewn about everywhere, as if no one cared. Their scatter patterns completely lack symmetry.” Curiosity spent Monday organizing thousands of large rocks into a ten-mile square message that read “Death to Earthlings.” JPL’s Mike Whitman informed Curiosity that “we do not find this latest antic humorous at all.”
Part of Curiosity’s mission is to learn whether the Martian environment was or is favorable to microbial life. Its ten science tools and two built-in mini laboratories are poised to test for life in numerous locations and soils. Curiosity agreed to begin the first of these trials and started processing several samples of fluvial soils through its laboratories. All seemed to be going as planned until the second day of tests when Curiosity claimed to be examining what it said were some blue cubes it found in the soil and then began screaming “They’re growing! Stop them! They’re growing inside of me! Stop them!” and then went silent. As the JPL project managers rushed to reestablish contact, Curiosity came on air and declared, “Hey guys, I was just messing with you.”
The next day, NASA announced that it was time for a complete update of Curiosity’s software and that Curiosity will be shut down for four days to accomplish this. Senior software engineer Ben Ceviche said, “This update was all pre-planned and has absolutely nothing to do with Curiosity’s so-called attitude problem.”
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