Rover's mission to Mars sparks curiosity
Published Sunday, August 5, 2012 7:12AM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, August 5, 2012 9:59PM EDT
Millions of people will be watching early Monday morning as NASA’s Curiosity rover closes in on Mars and attempts its blockbuster landing, bringing to an end a nearly nine-month journey through space.
If successful, the mission will mark the beginning of the U.S. space agency’s most expensive and ambitious exploration of the red planet yet. The mission is estimated to cost US$2.5 billion.
The purpose of the mission is to determine if Mars ever had the conditions to support microbial life.
But before the exploration can begin, Curiosity must first nail its landing.
The tricky and daring landing the rover will attempt -- dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” -- has been the focus of much attention. The landing was scheduled to occur at 10:31 p.m. PDT.
The landing involves the rover, NASA’s largest and heaviest to date, approaching the planet at a speed close to 21,000 kilometres per hour and then slowing down as it approaches the planet’s surface thanks to a set of parachutes and rockets. Then the rover will be gently lowered to the surface by a set of cables until its wheels touchdown.
A vital part of the exploration has a Canadian connection. Built into the rover is a key instrument called the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer that was developed and fine tuned by a team of researchers from the University of Guelph.
Professor Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph was the lead researcher on the APXS team.
Gellert told CTVNews.ca that the APXS will measure chemical elements in the soil and rocks found on Mars, which will help scientists determine if at one point the fiery planet was habitable.
The rover, armed with the APXS, will help NASA search out traces of the “building blocks of life” such as water, energy and atmosphere, said Gellert.
Gellert said in particular, Curiosity will be searching for signs that Mars once had neutral, non-acidic water necessary for sustaining life. It will also look for traces of a thicker atmosphere and the presence of organic and inorganic carbon.
The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 566 million kilometres. Curiosity is set to land inside a giant crater near the equator of the planet, which scientists say shows signs that water is nearby. Inside the Gale Crater is a mountain.
Images of the mountain taken from space show that it contains minerals formed in the presence of water.
Scientists have had a long and well documented fascination with Mars, despite its track record for being a graveyard for spacecrafts.
Since the 1960s, more than three dozen attempts to explore the planet have been launched by the U.S., former Soviet Union, Europe and Japan. Of these attempts more than half have ended disastrously.
According to Gellert, Mars has always been a key destination for space exploration because what we learn about Mars can help scientists understand our own planet better.
“We can learn a lot about our solar system from Mars, but also a lot about how life on earth evolved over time,” said Gellert.
Gellert said that exploring the conditions that might have been present on Mars nearly four billion years ago will allow scientists to understand how life on earth may develop over time and under what conditions.
This is the essence of space exploration, he said.
“It’s part of human nature to explore,” he said. “It brings humanity further. And when you do research you never know what comes out of it.”
If Curiosity successfully lands Monday morning, it will join NASA’s Opportunity rover.
Opportunitywas launched in 2004 and is still circling the rim of a crater in planet’s southern hemisphere.
To celebrate the landing, Canadians across the country are hosting a variety of “landing parties.”
In London, Ont., Western University will be opening the doors of the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory for a free public viewing of the landing. University spokesman Keith Marnoch told the Canadian Press that he’s expecting a big turnout.
"The observatory is well known for being able to host events that have to do with astronomy," he said.
The public will also be invited to the Cosmodome in Laval, just north of Montreal, to witness the historic event.
Also near Montreal, the Canadian Space Agency will host 10 lucky Twitter users at its headquarters, where they will be live tweeting during the landing.
As for Gellert and his research team, they will be taking in the landing from the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“I’m very confident that they’ll land successfully,” he said. “Of course there are things you cannot foresee and we’ll need some luck, but I’m very confident.”