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Curiosity, machine and motive

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Curiosity diagram

Hours after this post goes public, another roving robot, named Curiosity, will (one hopes) land on Mars. The builders of Curiosity choose a good name for their rover, with its seventeen cameras and on-board laboratory. They probably don’t realize that curiosity, both the machine and the motive, come from God. The machine might not seem to, but it is an indirect product. Man, with his basic curiosity built in, is the direct product.

Curiosity takes off

Curiosity, centerpiece of the Mars Science Lab mission, took off on November 26, 2011, atop an Atlas V rocket. It is due to land at 5:31 am UTC. Its launch and control authorities (NASA and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) expect “seven minutes of terror” before Curiosity lands, either intact or not. The reason: Curiosity will have the most complex automatic landing that any spacecraft, especially a robot spacecraft, has tried to make.

The robot probes (standing and roving) that have landed on Mars before, have landed either by parachute or by rocket. Curiosity must use both. It is too heavy to land by parachute alone. But Curiosity carries some of the most sensitive instruments that any rover has ever carried. Too sensitive for the cloud of dust that rockets would raise.

So the supersonic parachute will slow Curiosity down to 200 miles per hour. Then a special crane will drop from the parachute rig and use its rockets to set Curiosity on the ground, at the end of a tether. Once Curiosity’s six wheels are on the ground, the tether will let go, and the crane will bounce away and crash.

The problem: Mars is about seven light-minutes away from earth. So no one can pilot Curiosity to a landing. Curiosity, and its “sky crane,” must follow the strict instructions that they carry with them. The ones who wrote those instructions, assumed that the lay of the land, the winds, and the thickness of the air would be a certain way. If any of these is not as the authors supposed, the rover will crash. And the JPL crew won’t know until seven minutes later.

No accident

Curiosity diagram

Diagram of Mars rover Curiosity and its seventeen cameras. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Any deep space mission can only come about from intelligent design, planning, and building. No one can seriously imagine that a machine as complex as Curiosity could assemble itself from junk. (And certainly not from sand, ore, natural rubber, flax, and the other raw materials for making it.) More than that, Curiosity’s tires have a curious tread pattern. Its makers installed a three-letter abbreviation in the tread:

·— ·–· ·-··

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That is international code for the letters J, P, and L, the letter word for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Samuel F. B. Morse invented the first version of that code, of course. Morse is famous for the first message he ever sent over his new invention:

What God hath wrought!

Morse understood what many today forget: anything man builds, God made possible, because God “built” man. Somebody built man. As complex a machine as Curiosity is, man is a thousand times more complex. And unlike Curiosity, man can give instruction as well as take it, and can act beyond instruction if he must.

A model of behavior

The instructions that Curiosity carries, that (one hopes) will lead it to land intact, are a model for animal behavior. If Curiosity can land safely, that is only because its builders have given it not only physical stamina but also a behavior to follow. Animal behavior is, at heart, programming. These “programs” sit in an animal’s brain (exactly where and how they work, no one knows yet). Did those instructions write themselves? No. (If Curiosity could write its own instructions, no one would be taking about “seven minutes of terror”!) So who wrote them? God did.

Finding life

Will Curiosity find life on Mars? No one knows. NASA is the only launch authority to place probes on Mars. For more than thirty-five years, NASA has looked for life on Mars. It hasn’t found it yet, but it still might.

Would life on Mars invalidate Genesis chapter 1? No. In fact, some probe like Curiosity will find life on Mars. Life that came from Earth, in the same disaster that caused a Global Flood. Walter T. Brown, in In the Beginning, makes the case. The key clue: methane, which bacteria, especially gut flora, produce. Furthermore, the methane on Mars is not uniform; it comes from small pockets near the surface. One of them: the Gale crater, where Curiosity will touch down.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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Fergus Mason

“some probe like Curiosity will find life on Mars.”

Well, probably not. Traces of previous life is definitely possible, though.

“Life that came from Earth”

Um. What will you say if life is discovered on Mars and proves to be completely different from Earth life? What if, say, it uses a totally different heredity mechanism that doesn’t even vaguely resemble DNA?

Bob Jones

Actually, Fergus Mason’s question is a fair one. All known organisms use DNA with the exception of certain viruses which use RNA instead. So what are you going to say if the rover discovers a new life form that doesn’t use DNA or something similar?

Fergus Mason

What “norm”? All we can say about DNA/RNA-based heredity is that it’s the norm on this planet. For all we know there could be millions of cvilisations out there who’d regard it as weird beyond belief.

Bob Jones

You’re evading the question, Terry. What would you say if the rover discovered something that did not support your preconceptions about how nature works?

Fergus Mason

“on the grounds that it is an absurd hypothetical”

Why is it an absurd hypothetical, Terry? There are 400 BILLION galaxies out there with an average of 100 billion stars in each one. At least 10% of those stars, and maybe half of them, have planets. Do you really think life only arose on this one?

Fergus Mason

I know what extremophiles are and they’re fascinating. Even among more conventional animals there are some pretty weird things on Earth: link to helium.com

However extremophiles and giant tube worms use the same basic biology as all other known life, which is what science predicts anyway. What I was really asking is, what if we find something different? An organism that used some completely different heredity mechanism, totally unlike DNA or RNA, for example?

Gravity is a bit of an obstacle to Mars being seeded with life from Earth, by the way, but the reverse is certainly possible. In any case the landing of Curiosity is very exciting and I’m following it closely. It’s nice to see that the USA hasn’t completely abandoned scientific adventure.

Fergus Mason

Actually I can imagine several ways in which life could inherit without DNA or RNA. As I said I am sure that any Martian life would be carbon based – the only real alternative is silicon, and the given conditions on Mars the bar for that is a lot higher than for organic life – so I don’t see why methane (which also has many non-biogenic origins, of course) would be ruled out.

It does look as if the rover has landed relatively intact; it’s even communicating on Twitter. I’m pretty excited about its potential, especially considering how massively the previous rovers outperformed their design specs. Curiosity is far more capable than them and carries a much larger science package. As well as looking for evidence of life it can tell us a lot about Martian geology, too.

As Walt Brown’s cosmic splatter hypothesis has more holes than a box of teabags I won’t bother considering it.

Fergus Mason

We will indeed. I’m willing to follow it where it goes, and I hope you are too. NASA have made a great achievement in getting a machine that size to another world and I’m proud that my adopted country is one of the nations that contributed to the science package. Yes, I remember Spirit and Opportunity, which is why I mentioned them outperforming design specs. Anyway, nice to see that we can agree on how exciting it is.

TheEgyptian

The entire mission was developed and executed using government money. Some of the equipment was directly researched and developed by government institutions.

The private sector has never funded and launched an interplanetary research mission.

Yay for Ayn Rand.

Fergus Mason

In 2008 NASA’s budget of just under $18bn was about 50% more than total donations to the Southern Baptist Convention. The Curiosity mission cost $2.5bn. There’s plenty money floating around the USA for anyone who wants to explore the solar system. The Baptists could put four rovers a year on Mars if they wanted to. I shudder to think how many planets the catholic church could explore, but in Germany alone they spend €45bn a year subsidising Caritasverband, and who knows how much on communion wine, biscuits and dresses.

TheEgyptian

Income from “Megachurches” alone (not complete religious donations) total $9bln *every year*. The LDS has reserves of over $30bln

As religious organisations, they are *tax exempt*.

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