By Adi.

Every 4 years, the Olympics bring us together to witness the best in
human endurance, athleticism and sportsmanship. This week as medals are won and each country’s tally grows, there is one team that has its sights on a prize outside this world.

When NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission lands on the red planet, communication antennas in Canberra, Australia will be listening.

They have trained for years, learnt from past exploration missions, used the latest  and some of the most remarkable innovative technologies and perfected instruments to excellence. Now they wait for their dream machine to perform what it was built for – land on the Red planet and do science.

If you are in Canberra, why not immerse yourself in a once in lifetime event at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex and be amongst the first to know when the signals from the spacecraft are received at the Tidbinbilla Tracking Station.

If you are elsewhere in the world, checkout events in your city or join online at NASA TV. Curiosity will land near the Martian equator about 3:30pm in Canberra (15:31  Aug. 6 AEST ; 22:31 Aug. 5 PDT). Coverage begins about two hours before landing.

NASA engineers have performed the final trajectory correction that MSL is likely to need to enable a successful targeted landing at Gale Crater. If the success of Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Exploration Rovers that began exploring Mars in 2004 are anything to go by, NASA engineers are expected to out-perform expectations. Let’s wish them the very best and hope the landing goes to plan.

In the meantime, the scientists have begun sharpening their pencils (if they still use them!) and clearing out their emails. They are getting ready for the data stream from the red planets to come through. Thanks to the way Curiosity is packaged up, it is primed to begin science operations almost as soon as it lands.

Curiosity brings with it the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. The car-sized marvel for human ingenuity has a prime-mission period of two years.

The main science objectives:

  •  Assessing biological potential of the martian site
  • Characterizing geology and geochemistry
  • Investigating the role of water, atmospheric evolution and climate
  • Characterizing the spectrum of surface radiation

The instruments are acronyms galore: Mastcam, ChemCam, MAHLI, APXS, SAM, CheMin, MARDI, REMS, RAD, DAN

It is worth noting that Curiosity has not been designed to detect life but rather assess the potential for life. If successful, this mission may open the door for a future mission with the potential to detect whether or not life may have ever existed on Mars.

At RSES, we have our own Marsologist (areologist)!

Dr Penny King is heading to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to work as a Science Co-Investigator on an instrument on Curiosity, called the alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS).

“It is the opportunity of a lifetime to be involved in a mission that explores new areas in our solar system,” Dr King said in a recent interview.

“I am looking forward to being at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and receiving the information on a successful landing direct from Tidbinbilla Tracking Station near my home town of Canberra,”

“When Curiosity lands on Mars it will be a culmination of many years of work for scientists and engineers around the world.” she said.