What Space Mission Would a Mega Millions Win Buy?
'Selfies' are all the rage these days. Every smartphone is attached with a camera and to the Internet, so it was inevitable that our vain species would take full advantage of the technology, snapping endless photos of cats and, of course, ourselves. Selfies -- or 'self portraits' to the uninitiated -- have become such a cultural phenomenon that Oxford University Press has declared 'Selfies' their word of the year. This may sound asinine, but Merriam-Webster Dictionary balanced it outand declared 'Science' their word of 2013
. In the spirit of fairness, I've combined the two words of the year and applied them to robots. Yes, robots. Robots that explore space, doing science. And just in case you didn't know, robots can be pretty vain too, taking snapshots of their junk for the whole Internet to see. To narrow the field down a bit, I've only selected robots that have photographed parts of their own structure, or attached components. I've also allowed the occasional robotic camera that was deployed for the sole purpose of taking a selfie
(nice effort, IKAROS).
The first robot that likely comes to mind is the undisputed
King of Selfies
, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. The car-sized rover impressed the world with its selfie prowess when mission scientists released a stunning high-resolution mosaic of the rover in November 2012, only a couple of months after it landed inside Gale Crater. Curiosity achieved the feat by holding its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) at (robotic) arm's length, taking a truly authentic "selfie." The world applauded this effort.PHOTOS: Mars Through Curiosity's Powerful MAHLI Camera
But Curiosity certainly wasn't the first robot on Mars to snap its own picture, and it won't be the last. Although the Viking landers that touched down on the Red Planet in 1976 didn't have robotic arm-mounted cameras capable of taking a "true" selfie, they did their best.This view
from Viking 2 was snapped on Nov. 2, 1976, showing a part of the lander's deck, the American flag, the bottom of the robot's high-gain antenna and a boulder-littered Utopia Planitia, the largest identified impact crater on Mars.
PHOTOS: Alien Robots That Left Their Mark on Mars
Staying on Mars, some amazing panoramic shots and top-down self portraits have been attained by NASA's epic twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. As you've probably guessed, commanding a robot on another planet to take self portraits isn't for fun (even though the outcome
a lot of fun), it actually serves a purpose. In the case of Viking and Curiosity, engineers on Earth can study the photos to see the condition of instruments on the robots' 'decks.'As shown here
, for solar powered rover Spirit, using its mast-mounted panoramic camera was very useful for capturing amazing 360 degree views of the surrounding terrain. It was also great for keeping track of the build-up of Martian dust on its panels. In this photo taken in 2005, Spirit's solar array shines in the sun, having collected only a very thin layer of dust two years after it landed.NEWS: 9 Years Later: Remembering Mars Rover Spirit
Spirit's twin rover Opportunity soldiers on to this day, exploring the Martian surface after nearly a decade since landing. Jan. 25, 2014, is its 10 year Mars "birthday" (mark your calendars!). Currently exploring the edge of Endeavour Crater, helping to piece together clues of Mars' evolution (complementing the science being done by Curiosity), Opportunity is no stranger to taking its own photo. As Spirit and Opportunity were designed to the same specifications, Opportunity can also take 360 degree views and monitor dust build-up on its solar panels.Seen here
in 2011, its once shiny solar array is blanketed with a camouflaging coat of dust.NEWS: Opportunity Finds More Hints of Mars Habitability
No, robotic Mars explorers aren't especially fond of sefies, it's just that NASA has sent a lot of Mars surface missions in the past few years. Seen here in 2008, NASA's Mars arctic lander Phoenix took its own photo using a mast-mounted panoramic camera in a similar style to Spirit and Opportunity. It seems that the first rule of robotic selfies is: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.PHOTOS: Phoenix Mars Lander's First Images
Now for something a little different. In 2007, the European comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta made close approach with Mars, coming within 1,000 miles of the surface, using the planet for a fuel-saving gravity assist. The boost in speed is allowing Rosetta to catch up with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko -- an encounter that is planned for 2014. But during the flyby, the spacecraft managed to snap this iconic photo of Mars from space. What makesthis view
so special is that Rosetta also caught its own solar array in the shot.ANALYSIS: Advice to Rosetta: Maybe She's Just Not That Into You
Leaving Mars, we now head to Venus where, in 1982, the Soviet Venera 13 lander managed to survive the hellish conditions and transmit data for two hours. In that time it also returned some color photos of the Venusian surface. In those photos, the hardy lander was able to capture some of its jagged landing gear at the bottom of the shot. It may not be perfect, but while sitting in a pressure-cooker with a limited amount of time to return valuable data, it's a superb effort.ANALYSIS: When the Veneras Challenged Venus' Hellish Atmosphere
In a video released by the Chinese Space Agency of the Chang'e 2 lunar orbiter in 2010, the view shortly after launch was captured by a camera overseeing the deployment of the mission's solar panels.Courtesy of the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla
, the video in its entiretycan be watched on Youtube
Whoa! What's that huge UFO that photobombs the shot?
Oh, that's Earth.ANALYSIS: Chinese Probe Buzzes Asteroid Toutatis
The Japanese Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission got a little creative with this selfie effort. In 2005, as it approached near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, with the sun at its back the mission snapped its shadow falling on the sunlit asteroid surface.
for leading me to Hayabusa!
VIDEO: NASA Aircraft Videos Hayabusa Re-Entry
In 2010, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched a pioneering mission. Using only the sun's energy for propulsion, the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun, or IKAROS, probe set sail through interplanetary space for a January 2011 rendezvous with the planet Venus. After the solar sail was launched, two miniature wireless cameras were ejected by IKAROS as it deployed in Earth orbit,returning this admirable "hands free" self portrait
. Then, as IKAROS reached its destination eight months later, it took a snapshot of a crescent Venus (inset). (Thank youEmily Lakdawalla
for reminding me about these stunning IKAROS photos!)
Special thanks to all my Twitter buddies who engaged in Wednesday evening's conversation about robot selfies!
Can you think of more space mission "selfies"? Feel free to share them in the comments below.
Today, it was announced that there are two winners of the second largest jackpot of the U.S. Mega Millions lottery. The lucky tickets were bought in California and Georgia. At the time the winning numbers were picked, the jackpot totaled $636 million, but CNN reports that number will likely rise closer to $648 million.
This mind-boggling figure comes after Mega Millions restructured the betting system last year to make payouts bigger, decreasing the chances of winning from 1-in-176 million to 1-in-259 million. You have a far (FAR!) greater odds of being hit by lightning in your lifetime — a 1-in-6,250 chance. But it seems that the increasing number of zeros on a lotto check is directly proportional to the flagrant disregard for the math behind probability.
While $636 million is a number unfathomable to the vast majority of us, to the U.S. government’s annual budget, that’s just a rounding error. But it got me thinking: for fun, what planetary mission would a Mega Millions jackpot pay for? Sure, it’s like comparing apples and pears — it’s not like there’s a competing lotto for spaceship funding (although that would be nice) — but it would be interesting to make the comparison.
Starting out with NASA’s big planetary mission of the year, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter (that was launched in November and set to arrive at Mars in September 2014), the cost of the spacecraft, launch and operations comes to a grand total of $671 million. In fact, in a rare twist, MAVEN is expected to come in under its $671 million budget, allowing for some extra science, according to Spaceflight Now. MAVEN will study the red planet’s atmosphere to try to understand why it became so thin, inevitably providing key clues to Mars’ past habitable potential.
How about the moon? Well, NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) that recently entered moon orbit to unravel the moon’s dusty exosphere mysteries has a total project cost of $280 million.
Of course, these recent space missions are only a tiny sampling of planetary missions that NASA, Europe and other space agencies are currently operating and many are a lot more expensive. Take NASA’s Juno mission that buzzed Earth in October on its way to Jupiter, which has a projected mission cost of $1.1 billion. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity? $2.5 billion. What about the awesome, long duration Cassini mission? $3.26 billion.
Probably the biggest surprise to me, however, is the $636 million Mega Millions jackpot would cover the vast majority of the total running costs for a robotic mission to Pluto. Yes, NASA’s New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet will come in at $700 million for the spacecraft and operations until 2016. So you’d have a choice: As the sole winner you could buy a New Horizons or a MAVEN; sharing the win, you could buy a LADEE.
For me personally, I’d spend my win on a Europa flyby. Of all the places in the solar system where life may thrive, I want to know if the icy moon of Jupiter can indeed support life. As it would take some significant oomph to get to Jupiter orbit and survive the high-radiation environment and do some science during the flybys, it is thought that a “Europa Clipper” mission would cost in the ballpark of $2 billion, a concept that is currently too high for NASA to entertain beyond concept studies. But as the goal is so important, I’d at least buy a share of a Europa flyby mission (over a quarter of a Europa Clipper). Every little helps, after all.
The scientific returns of these missions are, in my view, priceless. To understand our solar system and our place in it, we send robotic emissaries to fly by, orbit, probe, dig and sample ahead of any future manned exploration. Alas, in stark contrast to the popularity of the Mega Millions jackpot, NASA’s planetary sciences is currently being gutted. NASA’s budget as a whole is shrinking and the planetary sciences are the soft underbelly where cuts are making the worst inroads.
The science, outreach, inspiration and knowledge these planetary missions bring are worth many times the hardware they cost, but in these strange economic times and, often, government ambivalence toward science, it is these missions that are disappearing and launch schedules are thinning out.
In this beautiful age of science and technology we have the opportunity to be kings on our little corner of the galaxy. Unfortunately, as a civilization, we’re more concerned with short-term profit and celebrity than science and development, a fact that isn’t going to change any time soon.