Curiosity and Its Big Brothers

When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, we were all excited. Victory! The engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the many companies that worked with it saw seven years of effort pay off in one nail-biting event. It was glorious! But then I started to see some Tweets and some forum comments that sounded like some people were celebrating the fact that we landed on Mars if it had never been done before. Au contraire! Let's look back at some of the many Mars missions, probes, and rovers that paved the way for Curiosity.

The Voyager Mars program was the first U.S. planned mission to Mars, conceived in 1960. The initial plan was to send unmanned spacecraft to orbit both Mars and Venus, with launch capsules to deploy to the surface of each planet. Several Mars missions were proposed throughout the 1970s. The program was delayed by the sudden mandate to land men on the moon, and Voyager Mars was eventually completely scrubbed.

The first man-made object to actually land on Mars was the Soviet Mars 2 probe, which crashed into the Martian surface on November 27th, 1971. The first successful landing was the Soviet Mars 3, which achieved a soft surface landing on December 2nd, 1971. Both probes had been en route to Mars for a year. The Mars 3 mission was short: the lander transmitted data from the surface for 14.5 seconds before system failure. The reason for the failure has never been completely determined. The photo above is a model of the Mars 3 lander. The Soviet Mars 6 lander transmitted 224 seconds of data as it approached Mars, but stopped transmission at either impact or slightly before impact on March 12th, 1974.

NASA's Viking Program was America's first successful mission to the Martian surface, consisting of two orbiters and two landers. The Viking 1 orbiter reached Mars in June of 1976 and spent the next few weeks searching for a nice spot to land. The Viking 1 lander touched down on July 20th, 1976 -exactly seven years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon. On September 3rd, the Viking 2 lander separated from its orbiter and also reached the surface. The two orbiters and the two landers all transmitted data and images from Mars for years before going out of service. Shown above is a model of the Viking lander.

The Mars Pathfinder mission landed on the planet on July 4th, 1997. The lander used an experimental "airbag" landing, and bounced 15 times, coming to rest a kilometer from its initial point of impact. Once on Mars, the lander became a base station named the Carl Sagan Memorial Station (the renowned astronomer had died only a few months earlier). Inside the station was the first NASA Mars rover, named Sojourner. Sojourner moved around the Martian surface at one centimeter per second, but hey, it moved! No other Mars probe had done that before. Sojourner inspected Martian rocks, which were named after cartoon characters. In the picture above, the river is taking Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer readings on a rock named Yogi. The Pathfinder mission transmitted thousands of images and huge amounts of data, ending on September 27th, 1997. The station and the rover had worked months past what was expected of them.

The twin geology rovers Spirit and Opportunity, also known as Mars Exploration Rover A (MER-A) and Mars Exploration Rover B (MER-B), were launched in the summer of 2003. They were designed to travel faster and further than the previous rover.

Spirit (MER-A) was "the little rover that could." It landed on Mars on January 3, 2004, after a seven-month space flight. Spirit was expected to examine its surroundings and send data back to Earth for about 90 Martian days. However, Martian wind unexpectedly removed dust from the rover's solar panels, allowing them to generate energy far longer. In fact, Spirit continued to roam the planet, analyzing rocks and dust for five years! In 2009, the rover became stuck on the Martian surface and couldn't move, but Spirit continued to analyze its surroundings and communicate with Earth for another year. In early 2010, the fading solar generator was put into hibernation mode, because the Martian winter was coming when little sunlight available would be available for recharging. Engineers did not hold much hope for reviving Spirit, and it was not to be. In 2011, NASA decided to officially close the books on the Spirit rover. The image above is Spirit's "self-portrait."

Spirit was very popular during its day in the sun. Randall Munroe of xkcd illustrated the story of Spirit in a way everyone could relate to, and even now makes people (like me) tear up. Pixar couldn't have come up with a more melancholy plot.

The Opportunity rover touched down on January 25th, 2004, on the opposite side of Mars from its twin Spirit. Like Spirit, it was expected to carry out a 90-day mission under solar power, but continued to generate its own power long afterward. The incredible thing about Opportunity is that eight years later, it is still powered up and exploring Mars, and still transmitting data back to NASA! The panorama shown here was stitched together from 817 images taken by Opportunity in December 2011.

The Phoenix Mars rover was sent to the polar region of Mars specifically to look for evidence of water. It landed on the red planet on May 25th, 2008. The mission was a cooperative effort between the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In June, the Phoenix robotic rover identified frozen water in a Martian soil sample, which was hailed as one of the biggest discoveries in history. Phoenix made the announcement over its Twitter feed.

Like the other solar-powered Mars rovers, Phoenix exceeded its expected lifetime, and continued to relay data after all its planned experiments were carried out. The mission was ended in 2010.

The current mission to Mars is called MSL, for Mars Science Laboratory. Of course, we called it Curiosity. That's the nickname of the newest Mars rover that has captured the world's imagination, possibly because of its strange and different method of landing, which was publicized in a video called Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror.

But the Curiosity rover landed exactly as was planned. Here's what the rover saw as it approached and landed on the planet.

Curiosity is bigger and heavier than previous rovers, and its mission is to assess whether conditions have ever been right for the existence of life on Mars, and to collect data for a future manned mission. You can follow the Curiosity Mars rover mission at NASA.

The next mission to Mars is named InSight, and its launch is planned for the year 2016. It promises to be as exciting as all the other Mars missions.

8 Surprising Uses for Peeps

You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.


Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.


Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)


If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.


With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).


Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.


There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.


We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.


Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.


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