Beauty, the beholder and the eye.

Look at this:


It’s a shot of the MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager) on Curiosity’s arm.

I think it’s a beautiful object.

Immanuel Kant said that if we think something is beautiful we want everyone to agree with us. Whilst obviously a notorious pissant, Kant was probably on to something here. (Although it could be said that we’d like everyone to agree with all of our opinions, not just our aesthetic ones – though that might just be me).

So, while some people may not have immediately thought “beautiful” upon seeing this photo, I’ll try to explain why I did, and hopefully you’ll agree with me. Or, at least, not disagree with me, which is probably as much as we can hope for.

Let’s be clear – I’m talking about beauty in terms of human creation. ‘Natural beauty’ is something else entirely. Personally, I think we like the look of flowers not because of any inherent perfection in the shape of petals, but because we are instinctively, emotionally, biologically moved by nature itself, and as an expression of the natural world, flowers appeal to us. In that sense, all nature is beautiful. All of it. So much so that a great deal of art amounts to the representation of nature. And, of course, many people have identified a Divine Artist as the great Creator. Somewhere a long the line we replaced our inward love of Mother Nature who gave birth to us with an outward admiration for Father God who makes things like us.

But I digress…

Beauty as created by people…

I work in the arts, where the philosophy of aesthetics is something we wrestle with daily. Along with budgets, contracts and who’s rostered on to clean the kitchen. But mainly aesthetics.

After thousands of years of debate, we still can’t define beauty, but I think we can talk about it as a system; a dynamic between concepts in opposition.

In my field, what we often appreciate is the way a creative work expresses a dynamic between form and intent.

The intent is the creator’s message, or mood – the psychological state they aim to share with the beholder.   It’s the payload, if you like.

The form, or language of an artwork enables a beholder to comprehend, or unpack the creators intent. It’s the delivery mechanism.

Throughout the history of art, schools and movements in various disciplines have, in essence, moved back and forth along the continuum between rigid formalism and expressive intent. Neither end, at its extreme, delivers much in the way of beauty. Both concepts tend to get in each other’s way. There is no perfect mid-point either, but the joy of art as an evolving tradition is the continuous experimentation with those two values.

What about this MAHLI shot then..?

Well, first of all, obviously MAHLI is not a work of art. It’s a work of science.

But as a human creation, it still operates within that dynamic field between form and intent. It’s a mechanism intended to perform a defined range of tasks within a certain environment.

The intent is exceptionally clear. As is the form – the restrictions imposed by available technology, environmental conditions both on Mars and on the way, and its restrictions within the wider mission.

The dynamic landscape this piece of work was created in is mathematical in its purity. There is no compromise based on taste, or guesswork, or feeling. Every shape, form, curve, angle, texture is the expression of an intent,formed in response to conditions.

As such, it is one of the best examples of human beings creating like nature, rather than in imitation of it.

Nature doesn’t make a flower a bright colour to delight us. It’s that colour because it has to be in order to work properly. Same with MAHLI.

Look again. Does it look more like something that was sculpted, or something that grew?

Now you might say, ‘Yes, but that would apply to pretty much anything we make, from a car engine to a block of flats to a milk bottle.”. In part you’d be right, but for me the sheer intensity of both the intent and the formal restrictions of this object lift it into a rarefied creative space that most human-made tools simply do not inhabit. No compromises. That’s a idea the highest minds in both art and science hold dear.

And you might also say “But where’s the humanity? Where’s the soul? How can it have beauty without the warmth of humanity?”

Firstly I would respond by mentioning the degree of human care that went into it’s creation. As I’ve said before, this whole mission represents the culmination of so many careers, every component of the mission was put together with a level of devotion, attention, care and passion that there really is only one way ti can be put: MAHLI was made with love.

And then I’d say that it comes back to intent – that element of the artistic equation that could also be called ‘inspiration’.

You see, MAHLI is an eye.

On one level it’s intent is to peer at rocks very closely and take highly detailed photographs. But it’s true intent is at a mcuh deeper, more human level. Its intended to change our perspective, to put us on another world, to see and think about things we never had thought about before, to deepen our understanding of and appreciation for the nature of our fragile existence. To look at life in a whole new way.

Goals don’t come much more noble, more artistic, more beautiful, more human than that.

And, at the end of the day, I’d have it on my coffee table.

It’d be a conversation starter.


How not to be cool, NASA-style…

Curiosity got moving last week, starting off with some Martian doughnuts.

Very careful doughnuts…

And not for the first time either.


But it countered the badassery of that display with some epic geekdom…

The morse code symbols for JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) are embedded in the tracks (and the Martian surface).

As the engineers pointed this out and everyone responded “Oh, right…that’s cool…I guess…” JPL desperately tried to rectify the situation…


…and then completely blew it by pointing out that the code treads are used to verify how far the rover has driven.

If the millions of dollars worth of electronic instrumentation is a bit suspect, they can count footprints.

Meanwhile Curiosity itself got on with doing cool science, like blasting more holes in rocks with its laser…

Bzzzzz-eow! Bzzzzz-eow! Bzzzzz-eow! Bzzzzz-eow!

Morse code for ‘ss’

…and taking awesome photos that make Mars look like a genuine three-dimensional world…

Or somewhere Captain Kirk would have a hamfisted punch-up…

But on the other hand…

For those who thought my Curiosity music playlist was cheesy…

At least I didn’t pick an embarrassingly naff song.




Million-Watt Nuclear-Powered Laser Blast Creates Most Exciting Blog Title to Date…


Curiosity ‘investigated’ a rock on Mars on the weekend. And by ‘investigated’ they mean vapourised into an ‘ionised, glowing plasma’ using energy so extreme the numbers seem almost silly:

“ChemCam hit Coronation with 30 pulses of its laser during a 10-second period. Each pulse delivered more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second.” – NASA

Oh, yes, they call this a ‘camera’…

The reason being the light from the glowing plasma can be analysed by spectrometers to determine what elements the sample consists of. So, in an oversimplified way, it’s a bit like a science fiction scanner. Albeit less like this scanner:

And a little more like this one:

OK, slightly less messy, but at least as potentially destructive.

Bear in mind that the laser on Curiosity is extremely portable. Obviously able to be vehicle-mounted. Potentially hand-held… Certainly able to be attached to the walls of a mountaintop lair, or incorporated into some sort of powersuit…

Lasers are, let’s face it, awesome. 

Did you know that with the most powerful lasers on the planet – (Curiosity’s is a pipsqueak in comparison) one of the biggest challenges is engineering laser componentry that can withstand the energy of the laser beam it generates? I didn’t…

What is the most powerful laser on the planet? Right now it appears to be the one at National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore . This thing combines the energy of 192 separate laser generators into a 23-nanosecond shot that this July was measured at 500+ terawatts .


Put it this way, the average bolt of lightning peaks at 1 terawatt.

And ‘Ignition’ in the name? The eventual purpose of the laser is to ignite nuclear fusion, or, in other words, to be the starter motor for a miniature star here on Earth.


But the Europeans want to top that. The proposed Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility (which as far as names go, is frankly trying a bit hard…) will be designed to produce 200 petawatts.

Comparison: this is 100 000 times as much energy as the entirety of humanity is producing at any given moment, focussed on a single point, for less than a trillionth of a second.

This is not for kickstarting stars. This is for “boiling the very fabric of space“.

Nothing to worry about there…

The Alan Parsons Project



How NOT to land on Mars…anymore

How do you get a 900kg, $2.5 billion rover full of sensitive scientific equipment safely on the surface of another planet? Well, you don’t drop it from a height, for a start. At least, you don’t these days…

Here’s the latest image from JPL:

Image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASNASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

No, that blue is not natural. They’ve colourised it to emphasise a particular feature. It’s the scouring effects of the thrusters which lowered Curiosity to the surface. We’ve seen these gouges up close in earlier images , but this shot from orbit gives a more overall picture. Imagine the four thrusters were blue spray-paint cans and you can track the approach and descent from the lower right of the shot.

It’s the result of the final stage of EDL, known as Skycrane. If you haven’t seen the animated artists impression of the whole Entry Descent & Landing sequence, do so now, it’s amazing, and you’ll see Skycrane in action. But basically, it looks like this:








In the final phase of landing, the rover is lowered gently to the surface from a thruster-propelled platform that is gyroscopically stabilising itself against ambient winds affecting both itself and the descending weight. The result is the softest-ever landing  of a man-made object on the red planet.

See, the last generation of rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, they basically got them about that low and then just dropped them, albeit protected by a profusion of airbags. Take a look at this video from about the four-minute mark:

Even the engineers described this as “the Achilles heel” of the project.

It was a pretty big one.

After precisely guiding the thing over 60 million kilometres, to have to just drop it and look away cringing seems a bit…well…un-NASA.

How un-NASA? Well, these are guys whose measurements, whose engineering tolerances go to finer decimal places than practically anyone else’s on the planet. So how many times did their computer simulations predict the last-generation rovers would bounce on the surface using this system?

“Between 15 and 30 times”

That’s some ‘rough enough’ rocket science right there…

Now the fact is, even if they’d wanted to keep the old system (after all, both of the old rovers survived), it wan’t an option for Curiosity, because it’s so much heavier. Hence the elegant Heath Robinsonesque arrangement of Skycrane.

It is a beautiful solution to a heck of a challenge.  After all, the landing is what dealt to so many of the very early Mars probes, both Russian and American. Getting the machine to Mars is the easy part. As they say, it’s not the fall…

And it’s important for another reason. One thing that lurks in the background of the entire mission, of all the Mars missions, and which was reiterated during President Obama’s phonecall to the team, is that this mission is not in isolation. It’s part of a long, steady, meticulous journey towards a manned mission to Mars.

And they aren’t going to fancy bouncing around about twenty times…

Stoppress: A fascinating discussion paper on various descent and landing system architectures, including but not limited to those discussed above

Google Mars: Explore missions, mysteries and motherships

You’ll have heard of Google Earth. Did you know it also contains Google Mars?

Google Mars: Summit of Olympus Mons

Google Mars: Summit of Olympus Mons

Download the Desktop version…

It’s a complex tool, to be sure, but there are tutorials available. One of the best things is that all the manned missions are pinpointed and mapped, and pretty much all the major photography is accessible in context. From the overhead swathes from the various orbiters to panoramas from rover & lander cameras. With the panoramas it will even place them as a wraparound that you can “stand” inside of and look around.

5-year mission path of Opportunity rover with multiple panorama shots

There’s a guided tour of Mars exploration that zooms you around with a narrator explaining the history of Martian exploration through the various probes. Unfortunately it’s not up to date, making no mention of Curiosity at all. Yet. As the mission goes on and the updates come down, this will end up being one of the foremost record of the project as a whole.

But when you delve into it, the depth of imagery is quite astounding. Sure, you can fly and zoom about, but if you want to, you can click into the very highest-resolution satellite photos of the surface.

Or, alternatively, you can overlay a hand-drawn map from the 19th century…

Giovanni Schiparelli’s map of Mars (1890)

The level of detail is such that some pointy-headed, tinfoil-hatted types have scoured it and “found” things. Things such as evidence of artificial structures, alien motherships and other anomalies. Discoveries of such fundamentally paradigm-shifting significance they can only be expressed through a clunky slideshow with a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack…

Oh, and you also get Google Earth…

A cog in the machine…

This video from Science Friday gives a rare glimpse at some of the people involved in building components for Curiosity. Mike & Lee of Honeybee Robotics and their team spent 8 years designing and building a carousel system that will handle the Martian soil samples Curiosity digs up.  As they say, some “90% of the science” that the rover does will pass through their system, so the thing better work first time – and every time, for two years or more. 


It makes you think about the probably tens of thousands of people who have a hand in this project, and the  fact that all of them were aiming to work at the very highest level. Like the Honeybee guys, this project undoubtedly became an obsession for many, and with so many teams and elements thoroughly interdependent, it reinforces that the MSL is a wonderful example not just of what human intelligence can do, but human intelligence working together can achieve.

Makes you proud. 

What’s the project you’re most proud of working on, professionally? The greatest team enterprise? 

For me it was working for a year at WETA Productions in Wellington, N.Z. On Day One they tour the facility with you, not just because it’s cool, – although it is – but to see the galleries of created props and costumes. as well as the trophy cabinent. I got to hold an Oscar and a BAFTA, albeit briefly. It’s not about showing off, it’s about giving new employees the message – this is the level we work at here. World class. Step up. Be as good as you can be. That’s what we’re about.

For everyone and everything involved in MSL, this is the apex of their professional life to date. 

And it’s going pretty well so far…


Hits from the Gale Crater: Curiosity’s playlist…

So they’re updating Curiosity’s software over the next few days for ground operations, replacing the EDL-optimised software. Given how much of a personality NASA/JPL are giving curiosity in their facebook & twitter feeds, I figured they may as well send up a few mp3s while they’re at it. Here’s my top ten tracks for Martian roving. Feel free to add yours…

10. Life on MarsDavid Bowie

Obvious really. Evidence for life, even historic life, is the holy grail of the mission. Discovering actual spiders from Mars, while unlikely, would simultaneously provide final proof of Bowie’s extraterrestrial origins. However the song doesn’t get any higher than #10 because Curiosity would likely expend valuable time and processor resources trying to figure out how exactly “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”.

9. The Planets – Gustav Holst

Again fairly obvious, with a nice pedigree and suitably epic, given the surroundings. The actual Mars movement is a little, well… martial for fairly obvious reasons, but the most popular, the Jupiter section, (linked above), is an excellent morning-wake-up track for a probe on a planet that’s -100 degrees before dawn, and no coffee.

It also resembles the Thunderbirds theme on steroids, which again…fairly appropriate.

8. Surfin’ Safari  – The Beach Boys

It’s basically a two-year road trip this mission, and nothing gets your six wheels rolling like popping in the Boys and rolling the top down. Or, y’know, stowing your mast….

7. King of the Road – Roger Miller

Once you’re rolling though, there’s going to be a bit of a sense of drudgery. After all, there is no ocean at the end of this beach, or even a gas station attendant to wipe the dust off your navcam. So what better song could there be to acknowledge your hardship and loneliness while still putting a spring in your suspension?  Can’t beat it for a singalong, either…

6. Surfin with the Alien – Joe Satriani

If there are any aliens, this’ll flush the little buggers out. Another great road song, particularly if you’re tearing it up at 1.5 inches per second down a dune field in a six-wheel drift, banging your mast cameras and throwing a goat with your robotic arm.

5. Chain Gang – Sam Cooke

If you’re not driving though, you’re digging. Sample after sample.

After sample after sample after sample after sample after sample, until you’ve used up every last watt-second and your masters finally let you shut down.

4. Spaceship Landing – Kyuss

When it all gets too much, all the loneliness, the science homework, the existential despair, Curiosity can swivel the high-gain antenna away from her folks back on earth, crank up the masters of desert metal and just stare at the vast and empty landscape for 15 minutes. I’m pretty sure she didn’t get sneak any weed up there, what with all the cameras, but you never know…and if she gets caught, she can always blame it on this guy…

Bobak Ferdowski, aka “NASA Mohawk Guy”

3. Hotel California/Take it Easy – The Eagles

In space, nobody can hear your secret cheesy guilty pleasure.

Plus Curiosity is going to have a special affinity with  the lyrics – “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” And as for Take it Easy, well…considering Curiosity’s own metal frame is the most effective medium for transporting soundwaves within 80 million kilometres, the line:

Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy…

…is just sound advice.

2. The Blue Danube – Johann Strauss

Bringing it back to classical thinking of the sun sinking below the horizon…followed by Phobos, Deimos, and the Earth itself, and it’s just you in the darkness with the celestial spheres. There’s Mars Orbiter twinkling overhead… the fastest moving object in the waltz of infinity. A little nod to Kubrick, of course.

Just as long as Curiosity doesn’t start singing “Daisy, Daisy”.

1. The War of the Worlds – Jeff Wayne

Payback time.

But seriously…textured, layered, epic narrative, Richard bloody Burton… if you had to have only one album for a two-year mission, you could do a lot worse than this.

Mind you, you’d be looking over your shoulder…


Any other suggestions it’d be great to hear them. That’s what comments are for. Promise I’ll respond, and tell you you’re crazy. Or a genius. Or both.

Once we get it finalised we can send it through to JPL and they can use their iTunes account. They’ve got the money.

With thanks to my friend @tindrum1 for the inspiration for this post – and the #1 in particular.