Space agency cheers Canada's role in Mars mission
Published Monday, August 6, 2012 6:19AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, August 6, 2012 2:55PM EDT
Canadians have reason to cheer an interplanetary achievement Monday, after NASA's Curiosity rover landed on the Martian surface with a critical piece of made-in-Canada technology on board.
"In 2008, Canadians celebrated as NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission marked the first time we, as a country, landed Canadian technology on the surface of another planet," Canadian Space Agency President Steve MacLean said in a statement referring to the laser light detection and ranging instrument that touched down on Mars four years ago.
Now, MacLean said a new piece of Canuck technology among Curiosity’s suite of high-tech scientific sensors should give Canadians another cause for celebration.
The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer -- a Rubik's-cube-sized instrument developed by a team of researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario – is designed to probe the chemistry of rocks and soils that Curiosity encounters as it roams the Martian landscape.
That, MacLean said, makes this arrival "another first for Canada: the first time we reach out and 'touch' Mars."
Science community, fans thrilled
Cheers were heard from space-lovers around the world overnight, led by the team of jubilant mission specialists watching the long-anticipated "seven minutes of terror" as Curiosity made its harrowing Mars landing on schedule overnight.
As planned, the interplanetary rover plunged through the Martian atmosphere at speeds exceeding 20,000 km/h, before employing a complicated series of manoeuvres -- including deploying and jettisoning a supersonic parachute.
In the final stages, the car-sized, nuclear-powered roving laboratory was lowered by cable from a hovering rocket-powered module that slowed it to just 3 km/h for landing.
Then, minutes after touchdown, Curiosity marked the transition from its eight-month, more than 566-million kilometre journey by sending its first pictures of the Red Planet back to Earth.
In Pasadena, Calif., the mission team erupted in a jubilant celebration that eventually prompted JPL Director Charles Elachi to plead for calm so he could brief reporters.
"This team came back with the gold," he said, comparing the thrill of the mission's success so far to a medal-winning Olympic performance.
Watching the action from Toronto, where he had less than two hours of sleep after watching the landing at a "Mars party," Space Quarterly managing editor Randy Attwood told CTV's Canada AM that after eight years of work, the mission really did hinge on everything going according to plan in those few critical minutes of the landing.
There was no way the mission team could intervene, he explained, because the 14 minutes it takes to beam signals to Earth from Mars meant the rover was already on the surface before they began watching in California.
"They knew exactly what was working and what wasn't," Attwood explained. "But there was no way they could control what it was doing during the landing."
York University astronomy Professor Paul Delaney told CTV News Channel the landing itself is a historic achievement worth celebrating.
"The sheer fact we've got it on the ground is a huge plus for technology," Delaney said, even if he is wildly excited for what's yet to come from the interplanetary rover.
Curiosity’s future on Mars
Packed with a range of scientific instruments -- from cameras and an articulated power drill to a high-powered laser beam -- the six-wheeled rover is designed to roam the planet's surface, hunting for any signs of life.
"Life will eventually leave behinds evidence in the form of fossils or other tell-tale debris," Delaney said, explaining that Curiosity will be scanning for whatever signs it can find.
But first, it will need to go through the process of system checks to ensure it arrived in full operating order. That means it could be several weeks before it takes its first drive on the planet, though it is expected to send back its first colour images in days.
In the meantime, NASA chief Charles Bolden said, "It doesn't get any better than this."
U.S. President Barack Obama marked his own appreciation of the $2.5-billion mission's achievement, tweeting: "I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality."
Curiosity brings the number of NASA's landings on Mars to seven, and comes as the U.S. space agency confronts budget cuts and an uncertain strategy.
But, as Attwood explained, Curiosity's mission provides a focus in the immediate future.
"This is at least a two-year mission, but probably more like a 10-year mission," he said.
NASA's much smaller-scale Mars rover Opportunity has defied expectations of its lifespan as it continues to operate on the edge of the Endeavour crater eight years after it landed on the red planet.
Curiosity, meanwhile, touched down in the 150-kilometre wide Gale Crater scientists believe was formed in a meteor impact more than 3 billion years ago.
Once it gets moving, the rover will head for the five-kilometre high Mount Sharp that rises from the crater floor searching for evidence of the 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.
And, Delaney noted, a parallel goal of the mission is to determine whether Mars might one day prove hospitable to another lifeform: humans.
That means determining how much radiation bathes the planet's surface, for instance.