Last night, I stayed up late to watch the NASA livestream of the Curiosity rover landing. It seems to have been an unmitigated success: each step of the entry and landing process, even that crazy sky-crane maneuver, was performed flawlessly.
As Travis Beacham put it on Twitter:
Although there were tearful hugs and high-fives and all manner of cheering when “Touchdown!” was called, the wonderment built to a real climax when the first thumbnail image came through. It was small, in black and white, and showed the Martian horizon in the background, with the wheel of the rover in the foreground.
Shortly thereafter, a slightly larger version was displayed: still black and white, but with enough resolution to show dust on the glass. A second one followed shortly after, showing the rover’s shadow on the ground. Cue the “pics or it didn’t happen” jokes, as well as the rapid proliferation of Photoshopped spoofs.
One of the first images from the Curiosity rover.
In our micro-culture of the moment, obsessed with photo sharing and images, this tiny thumbnail still seemed like a miracle (albeit a required one). A picture really is worth a whole lot of words. But have you ever stopped to think about what it takes to plan for that from Mars?
We take for granted being able to snap a great-looking picture and send it wirelessly to almost anywhere we want with the tap of a few icons, but transmitting images back from another planet is a complicated process.