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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Another Mars landing

27 November 2018

As I type this, there's a window on my screen showing the live scene at the mission control centre for the Insight Mars mission.

I can see people milling around desks and staring intently at LCD screens.

It is now just 55 minutes to the moment of touchdown (or disaster).

As someone who remembers the Viking probes that touched down on the red planet's surface back in 1976, I'm gobsmacked at how things have changed in the 42 years or so that have passed since then.

Back in 1976, the primary sources for news about the project were "old school" media such as radio, TV and newspapers. Today, it's the internet all the way.

Now for the gobsmacking observation...

The technology associated with these mars missions has improved dramatically over the past 40 years or so... but the technology used to deliver the news to the public has changed even more.

Mars missions are still (mainly) using old-school chemical rocket engines and course management plotted by good old-fashioned digital computers.

Data is still beamed back from the missions by good old radio and commands are also issued the same way.

Of course the landers now have sophisticated computers and a far greater degree of onboard mission management. Since there is an 8-minute propagation time for radio transmissions to or from earth, it is impossible to manage the landing process from here. Once the maneuver is initiated, the mission lander is fully autonomous.

This makes you realise just what an achievement those early landings, without this degree of onboard processing power, really were.

But back to the real technology revolution -- here on Earth.

The internet has connected me directly to NASA and I'm able to watch exactly what's going in at mission control. I am no longer a slave to the broadcast schedules of radio and TV, nor the print schedules of newspapers.

Of course I'm more than a little disappointed that the NASA livestream on YouTube seems to be buffering but I guess that's to be expected -- with over quarter of a million other people watching at the same time.

Even more gobsmaking is the fact that virtually any person, anywhere on the planet, can watch this using their smartphone.

If you're unfamiliar with the Insight mission then I recommend you go to the NASA site and take a look at some of the videos and information there. This is a rather complex "delivery" and involves the use of cubesats (Marco A and B) plus a bunch of networking with other mars-orbiting satellites.

Once landed, the science begins and to be brutally honest, is nowhere near as exciting or challenging as the actual arrival itself.

So, there's still over half an hour until planned touch-down so I have no idea whether this mission is going to be a success or a failure but fingers are crossed (hence all the typos ;-).

Have these mars missions become a little ho-hum these days?

Back in the 1970s, the world was on the edge of its collective seat as we waited to see what the surface of mars actually looked like from ground-level. Today, not so much.

What a shame.

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