Curiosity – a short story

Copyright © 2013 by Christian Bergman, All rights reserved.

All people, places, and events are fictional … except when they aren’t.

The traffic on the Foothill Freeway is particularly light today, due to the fact that almost everyone is taking the week of Christmas off. I am approaching an old pickup truck poking along what must be 45 to 50 mph in the far left-hand lane. At 80 mph, I am closing the gap quickly. Deftly sliding over one lane to the right, I punch the accelerator of my 12 year old ‘pre-owned’ Tesla Roadster, passing the pickup with ease. Inside the pickup truck an old Latino couple are arguing away, oblivious to the traffic hazard they present. I check my rearview mirrors left and right and realize that we are the only two vehicles on the road. My exit is coming up fast, so I let off the accelerator and ease over to the far right lane applying ever-so-light regenerative breaking to slow down for my left turn on to Berkshire Place. I swing under the Foothill Freeway and continue coasting and decelerating as I approach the dead-end ‘T’ into Oak Grove Drive.

The light is red. As I pull to a stop, I mutter out loud, “why am I waiting on a signal light when I’m the only car as far as the eye can see?” With that I check my surroundings one last time, swear under my breath, and pull deliberately into Oak Grove Drive heading north. I smile as I power up to the speed limit. “I am an outlaw,” I think to myself as I double check the radar detector and rear view mirrors.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory main entrance appears ahead. Once again, I decelerate as I pull up to the guard shack. I immediately recognize the guard on duty and show him my badge. “Hey Al, Merry Christmas. I thought you were off to see the grandkids.”

“They came here this year. Grandma, our son and his wife took them to Disneyland. That’s too much for me. I decided I’d just as soon come in to work today. How come you’re here?”

“I drew short straw. Most of my team are off this week and somebody has to babysit Curiosity.”

Curiosity? So you’re not on the Darwin rover mission?”

“Oh hell no. That’s for the big boys. The fair haired ones. The up-and-comers. Me, I’m the red headed stepchild. I was damn lucky to get mission director of Curiosity. It’s nine years old. Completed all of its primary and secondary mission goals. Now we’re just driving it till it dies. Trying to milk every last bit of science out of it. I’m amazed that we keep getting funding. Guess I should be thankful. So while Darwin team gets all the press and Mars groupies, we just keep on keepin’ on.” I smile.

Al waves me on through and I gently step on the accelerator and wind my way toward the Curiosity mission control parking lot. The Darwin team got a bright new shiny building. We, on the other hand, are right where we have always been. I pull into a parking space designated for electric vehicles and put on the roof before plugging in the Tesla. It’s a cool crisp California winter day. The sky is a cloudless blue and the sun is shining brightly. “I’m glad I’ve got sunglasses,” I think to myself. The slightly uphill walk to the mission control building is invigorating.

I reach the main door, unlocking it with my card key ID, and go inside. I walk by the empty greeter’s desk and head for the stairwell. Again with my card key, I unlock the stairwell door and walk up the flight of stairs to mission control. One last time, I card key my way in and walk over to the command consoles. “Morning Jacob, Sandy. Anything interesting happen overnight?”

“As usual, Darwin is hogging all the downlink bandwidth. We’re lucky to get the occasional hazcam or navcam downloads,” Sandy replies bitterly.

“Well, what do we have? Is it enough to plot the next traverse?” I ask.

“Probably,” Jacob answers.

“Well you might as will show me what you got.” I pull up a chair and sit down. “Maybe we should’ve pulled the plug months ago,” I think. “We finished every science objective one could’ve imagined. Now we are just driving around on top of Mount Sharp doing what? Sightseeing? Realistically, Darwin is where all the excitement is now. Even if it is just a replay of Curiosity with some added bells and whistles. We’ve spent nine years driving in circles around this one location. At least Darwin is in fresh territory in Hellas basin. That’s where all the excitement is. Lowest place on Mars. Best chance of finding liquid water. Evidence of glaciers. What have we got? … Same old same old.” I watch the display panel as the black-and-white images slowly display. “What direction are we facing?”

“East, toward the sun,” Sandy responds.

I continue to watch as image after image is displayed. Something catches my eye. “Stop. What is that?” We stare at a bright glint in the photo.

“Sun reflecting off something shiny?” Jacob quips.

“Well yeah, but what?”

“Windshield of a ’78 Ford Pinto?”

“Very funny. What’s up here to reflect like that? Nothing we’ve seen in the past nine years. Okay next picture …” It was gone. “Go forward a few more pictures. Let’s see if it reappears.” Nothing. “How far away do you think it is?”

Sandy responds, “could be a day’s drive, could be week’s drive. Can’t tell from one picture.”

“Back up to the bright spot again. Is that the navcam? Is it both left and right?” I ask.

“Left navcam only.”

“Okay, let’s correlate with whatever camera angles we can get to figure how far away the spot is. Jacob, start plotting a traverse to get us over there.” I rub my face with both hands mulling over this turn of events. “What would be shiny? What would be reflective? Ice? Metallic outcrop? We’ve driven all over this rock, why didn’t we see it earlier?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“What would you like to drink?” the waitress asks.

“I’ll have a Negro Modelo.” I reply. Jacob orders a Corona; Sandy a margarita. A runner brings the de rigueur chips and salsa. We’ve quit for the day and are meeting for drinks in the bar of Los Gringos Locos, a Mexican Restaurant not far from JPL. Jacob had successfully programmed in the traverse and sent the execution commands. We waited until we received conformation that the commands had been received, then left to come here. Martian sunset would occur shortly after the traverse completed, so there would not be any images until tomorrow anyway. And then only if we could get a break in the downlink bandwidth from Darwin.

Los Gringos Locos had become our unofficial daily debriefing spot after I was given responsibility for Curiosity. After Spirit got stuck in the sand and it’s solar panels covered in Martian dust and Opportunity lost footing and toppled over at Endeavor crater, Curiosity was the last functioning rover on Mars … that is, until Darwin.

“Hard to believe that Darwin‘s been on Mars for a week already. Time flies when you’re making history.” Jacob commented.

“They’re still calibrating the instruments and what do they discover … liquid water, seeping out of the ground. How lucky is that?” Sandy replies. “It takes a year for Curiosity to discover clays that prove that Gale Crater had liquid water 3.6 billion years ago and Darwin discovers liquid water – flowing – on what … the second day?”

“Third day.”


“Do I sense some inter-team jealousy?” I smirk.

“Maybe a tiny bit,” Sandy admitted. “Still, it’s not fair.”

“Who ever said life was fair?”

“I know. But why can’t it be unfair in my favor?” Sandy smiled.

I finish my beer. “Tomorrow’s another day.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We are studying the latest navcam and hazcam images. Another day, another set of images. No indication of the ‘anomaly’, as we had officially classified it. “Nothing,” I sigh.

“Nothing,” Jacob repeats.

Darwin has confirmed the presence of organic molecules in the water seep,” Sandy replies, reading from the Darwin daily press release.

“Of course it has,” Jacob sighs. “Do you still want me to plot a traverse to the ‘anomaly’?”

“Where else do we go?” I answer. “Who knows, maybe we’ll find some insulation from a prior mission, use it to chart wind direction.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I passed on Los Gringos Locos tonight. We all did. We are bored and a bit depressed. I get a cold hard cider out of my fridge, pour it into a pilsner glass and go into the living room.

I turn on CNN.

… latest news from NASA and the Darwin rover. Sarah Stevens reporting from Darwin mission control here at the Jet Propulsion Labs in sunny California. NASA announced yet another ground breaking discover by the Darwin rover. Today the Darwin team rocked the scientific community with their discovery of …

I change channels.

… you name it and think that you know it. The red planet, no air, no life. But you do not know Mars, for its true name is Barsoom. And it is not airless, nor is it dead, but it is dying …

The SyFy channel is showing the 10 year old John Carter movie that flopped so badly at the box office.

I change channels.

… whole thing is one big reactuh made out of ditanium, Cohaagen knows it makes aiyeah. The bastuhd won’t turn it ahn.

whole coruh of Mahs is ice. The reactuh melts it and releases the oxajun.

Turner Classic Movies is showing the 30 year old Arnold Schwartenegger movie, Total Recall.

I down my cider and turn off the TV.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Okay, Jacob, let’s see today’s new images,” I command optimistically.

“Sorry, not yet.”

“Wait don’t tell me … Darwin.”

“Oooo, good guess,” Sandy chimes in, cynically.

“Any idea when we will get a downlink window?”

“Maybe not today. Darwin is downlinking videos of every f-ing thing it does. It has tied up all of the available transmission bandwidth in orbit around Mars and the receiver bandwidth here. Sucks to be us.” Jacob went back to his web surfing.

“I am so bored,” Sandy complained. “Why are we even here?”

“Pays the bills?” I answer.

“Okay, there’s that, but this is such a waste. I just feel so useless.”

“Yeah, I agree. Where shall we go for lunch?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Lunch took longer than I expected. I shouldn’t have had that fifth beer.” I struggle to stay awake. “Well?”

“First image is coming in now. Navcam images are coming in first, followed by hazcam. The Darwin team gave us a downlink window. Okay, here it is.”

I am looking at a stereotypical black and white image of the Martian landscape. Nothing special.

“Next image coming in.”

Another image. Same scene, different parallax. Nothing special.

“How long is our downlink window?”

“Should be long enough to get the navcam and hazcam downloads for this traverse.”

Another image. Nothing special.

Another image. Same scene, different parallax. Nothing special.

Another image. Nothing special.

Another image. Same scene, different parallax. Nothing special.

My eyes are slowly closing. I can’t focus. I need coffee. “I should make coffee.”

“Hey wake up, you’re snoring.”

“Unmf, ahh, what?”

“You’re snoring.”

I blink, trying to get my eyes to focus. “What?”

“Snoring. You’re snoring.”

“Unh, okay, yeah, okay. I’ll make some coffee.”

I get up and stagger into the coffee room. Standing over the service sink, I splash cold water on my face, trying to wake up. I rinse out the coffee pot, find the filters, fumble to peal out a single filter, put it in the filter holder, rip open two bags of coffee, pour it into the filter, slide the filter holder back in, put the coffee pot under the filter, hit the brew button. After an eternity, coffee is now flowing into the pot.

I walk back to the command room. “Coffee?”

“Yes, please,” I hear in unison.

“Black okay?” Sandy and Jacob each nod yes.

I walk back to the coffee room.

“YOU SHOULD SEE THIS.” I hear coming from down the hallway.

I walk back with three coffees. On the screen in front of me is another typical black and white Marscape, with one exception, a bright white spot in the lower right. It appears to be dancing ever so slightly right-left, right-left.

“These are the left and right navcam images, taken here.” Jacob points to a satellite photo with an elevation grid superimposed on it. The programmed traverse is also displayed on the photo. “We only see it in this stereo pair from the navcam. It is missing from all of the rest.”

I take a sip of coffee. “We can estimate distance from left-right parallax angle. We also know the sun angle. We can check the parallax angle distance against the distance computed from sun angle and mast height, assuming the reflector is flat on the ground. How soon can you do that?”

“Give us an hour.” Jacob and Sandy immediately begin working the trigonometry.

“Go to it.” I sit down and start going through the remaining images at another workstation. The adrenalin rush of seeing the ‘anomaly’ again worked better than coffee ever could have. I am wide awake.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Next traverse programmed and instructions sent,” Sandy announces proudly.

I check the time, almost 7 PM. “How many traverses to get there?” I ask.

Jacob answers, “3 – 5 sols, maybe less.”

“How bad is the terrain?”

“Not too bad. We’ve handled worse. But …”


“But, there is a gully between here and there. It is easy enough to drive around, but we will lose the reflection from the sun. I can get us to the location, but we won’t see the reflection.”

“When do we reach the gully?”

“By tomorrow.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I sip my morning coffee. “I have got to start going to bed earlier,” We are once again waiting for Darwin to relinquish the downlink. “How long this time?” I ask.

Sandy answers, looking up from her monitor, “Darwin team expects to be finished by noon. Why do we even bother coming in before lunch?”

“Didn’t we just have this conversation yesterday?” I ask.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It’s the third afternoon after first seeing the ‘anomaly’ and our images are finally streaming in.

“I’ve scheduled the navcam pairs to come in first,” Jacob announces. “They started just after sunrise, while Curiosity was stationary, and will continue throughout the traverse. I instructed Curiosity to remain stationary until the sun angle is well above where we expect to see the anomaly. Once Curiosity begins moving we should get a navcam image every two meters or so throughout the traverse. First pairs coming in now.”

The first few image pairs are unremarkable. By now I have the scene memorized. The fifth left-side navcam image flashes up.

“There it is,” Sandy exclaims.

As soon as the right image comes in, Sandy queues it up for parallax toggling. Right-left, right-left, right-left, the bright glint dances. Much wider separation this time.

“Is it in the next pair?” I ask.

The next pair is again, unremarkable.

“Okay, while Sandy and I review the rest of the incoming images, Jacob you take this set of parallax measurements and calculate the distance to our target. I want to know where this is on our satellite photo. Oh, and when you send the traverse instructions, program in a set of color mastcam images of the target area at the end of the traverse. Maybe color will show us something we haven’t seen before.”

“Okay, will do. By the way we should start turning to avoid the gully on this traverse.”

“Do whatever you have to do to get us over to that spot.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We didn’t finish until about 10 PM and decided to come back to Los Gringos Locos bar to plot our strategy for tomorrow. We are drinking our usual trio: Negro Modelo, Corona, and margarita.

Jacob is talking. “… driving around the gully, and no longer facing the target. So no more sun reflections. But even though the navcams and hazcams will not be aimed at the target, we can still use the color mastcam to take a look. Maybe a different viewing angle will help.”

The TV in the bar is on. … other news, the Internet is abuzz with the latest pictures from Darwin that appear to show two naked humans running on the Martian …

“Maybe they’re Zs,” Sandy laughs, referencing the decade old internet cult classic, The Nudist War.

“They are three inches tall and are either rock or ice formations,” I reply in a bored tone of voice. “I’ve studied the original hi-rez images in context.”

The TV continues. … objectives for tomorrow, including the placement of a survey marker similar to this file photo, but gold-dipped brass to avoid corrosion and …


“I bet the Darwin team is eating this up,” Jacob comments.

Curiosity had its glory, now it’s Darwin’s turn,” I remind them. I finish my beer. “What say we sleep in and come in around noon tomorrow?”

I get no complaints.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It’s just past noon and we’re about to begin looking at the incoming images from last night’s traverse.

Jacob is setting the expectations. “Okay, so just like yesterday, Curiosity will stand still to take navcam images of the target while the sun is rising. Then it will begin veering to the right in order to avoid the gully. Today’s traverse should stop here.” He points to a spot on the map image.

As usual the first few images show nothing. Then exactly one navcam pair shows the bright reflection. It is the brightest we have seen it, and the parallax separation is now quite pronounced.

“Jacob, you know the drill. Find out where that reflection is on our map. Sandy, you and I will review the incoming images and by the time the color mastcam images arrive; Jacob should have our latest position fix.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jacob had completed the calculation of the target location and was showing us the latest position on our map. Our last three position fixes essentially overlaid one another on the map, “It has got to be right here.” He stabs his finger at a point on the display screen.

The first color mastcam image of the target is arriving now. As we stare at it, we realize that none of us sees anything out of the ordinary.

“Can we be there by tomorrow?” I ask.

“Possibly,” Jake replies. “Give me an hour and let me plot the next traverse.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We are once again closing down the bar at Los Gringos Locos. “As I was saying, I’ve programmed Curiosity to drive directly up to the target,” Jacob continues. “It will then sequence 360 degree color mastcam images, beginning with the target location.”

I put up my hand to halt conversation and point to the TV. … made history again today by placing the first-ever surveyor’s marker on Mars. We are looking at an image taken by Darwin just after placing the marker. As you can see, its surface is polished to a mirror finish to provide a reflector for satellite laser altimetry. Darwin will be placing a total of …

“Oooo, the first-ever surveyor’s marker,” Sandy mocks the announcer. “Can they hype this any more?”

I smile and down my beer. “Let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow’s the big day when we get to announce that we’ve discovered some reflective Mylar from a previous mission.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“What’s wrong?” I ask. Darwin team had given us a window in their downloads and we are reviewing an engineering dump from Curiosity.

Curiosity is rebooting. No images today,” Jacob announces dejectedly. “I’m still reviewing the transmission, but it appears that just after the end of this traverse we had a drop in power and that caused the CPUs to cycle … to reboot. Every time they come back online we get another power drop. Looks like it’s been rebooting continuously for a while now.”

“Well, that certainly harshes my mellow,” Sandy complains.

“We knew it was going to happen someday,” I replied. “We’ve been running on borrowed time for what, five years now? There’s barely enough heat coming out of the RTG to charge the battery. Plutonium’s all decayed. Can we sit and wait until the batteries are charged?”

“Don’t see as we have much choice. My only hope is that Curiosity will get a solid reboot and then just sit and wait for the power levels to come back up. Unfortunately just sending us the engineering dump after reboot seems to be draining the battery. We may have to wait a few days … or … this could be the end of the line.”

“Then I guess we wait.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I sip my coffee as we sit in front of our consoles watching the latest images come in from Darwin. It’s been over 24 hours since Curiosity last rebooted. Jacob just sent it an instruction to wait another day before sending an engineering dump including battery status.

“So we wait yet another day,” Jacob comments.

“If there’s nothing to be done, do we have to wait here?” Sandy laments.

“I guess not. Let’s take the day off. See you back here in 24 hours.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I walk down to the parking lot and take the roof off the Tesla Roadster, stowing it carefully away. Then I unplug the charger, get in and check the battery level … almost a full charge. “If only it were this easy to charge Curiosity,” I muse.

I back out of my space and set course for the Angeles Crest Highway and a day trip in the Angeles National Forest.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I pull into my space at JPL feeling rejuvenated after an enjoyable day trip in the mountains and a good night’s sleep. I put up the top and plug in the charging cord. “Another day, another opportunity. Make that another Curiosity,” I chuckle to myself. “Let’s see how far we can push the old girl.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Morning Sandy, Jacob – so what’s new today?”

“Still waiting for Darwin team to relinquish a downlink window, ” Jacob answers. “When they do we should get the engineering dump with the battery status. For now … we wait.”

“Coffee?” Sandy and Jacob nod in the affirmative.

I wander off to make coffee.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Here you go,” I pass out the coffees. “Still waiting?”

“What else,” Sandy replies.

Darwin team just notified me that there should be a break within the next five minutes,” Jacob announces.

We wait.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“The engineering dump is in,” Jacob announces. “Let me notify Darwin team that we have the report and they can start downlinking any time.”

We each pull the report up on our consoles and begin to study it in detail.

“Wow,” Jacob exclaims. “This is worse than I thought. Charging rate has dropped to near zero. The RTG has cooled to the point that it’s barely generating any power. We’re definitely not going anywhere else … ever again.”

“Do we have enough power to capture some color images,” I ask desperately.

“I don’t know. Maybe,” Jacob replies. “Maybe a color image pair. maybe a single image, maybe … ”

I finish his train of thought, “nothing.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jacob transmits the final command sequence, instructions to aim the mastcam at the target and take first a left, then a right color mastcam image and transmit back to Earth.

“Under perfect conditions we should get the images back in a half-hour,” Jacob explains.

“Please notify Darwin team that we will need a downlink window within the half-hour. Tell them this is likely to be our last ever downlink.”

“Roger that,” Jacob replies.

A few minutes later Jacob comes back, “Darwn team is giving us full bandwidth as long as needed to get our images. They sign off Godspeed Curiosity.”

The full impact of the message hits me and my eyes well up with tears.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Left image coming in now,” Sandy announces. “Putting it on screen.”

We stare at the screen dumbfounded, unable to speak.

Jacob interrupts the quiet reverie, “that was it. The right image never transmitted. Pinging Curiosity now, but it will take twenty minutes to get an answer back. I’ll ask Darwin team to hold the downlink window open a little longer.”

We continue to stare at the image in front of us. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. Twenty-five minutes. Thirty minutes. Nothing. No response from Curiosity.

“Thank Darwin team for the downlink window and let them know we won’t be needing any more,” I instruct Jacob.

“Roger that,” Jacob replied.

Our gaze returns to the single image on the screen.

A few minutes later Sandy breaks the silence again, “what do we do now?”

“That is a very good question …”

I return to staring at the screen.







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