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The tides of Venus

The Dish #2: This time it’s Mars

‘The Dish’ is one of my favourite movies of all time, telling the story of the Australian and American crew who operated the dish to pick up the television pictures from the first moon landing. I was thinking the other day that, after the upcoming events in August, would a sequel be on the cards?

24 days to go now, and the nerves at NASA are showing. At 3.30pm on 6th August (AEST) they are attempting to land the Mars Science Laboratory, named ‘Curiosity’ on the surface of Mars. The engineers who designed the landing of this rover, the size of a small car, are calling it Curiosity’s ‘7 minutes of terror’.

Why put themselves though all this? Well Curiosity is a lot bigger than the previous rovers that have successfully landed. The last two rovers that landed on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity, bounced onto the surface encased in large air bags that deflated once they had come to a halt. Not only is Curiosity too big to do this with, but the planetary scientist that designed the mission are now being more picky on where they want her to land. The ‘sky crane’ is designed to land Curiosity in a prime interesting spot on the Martian surface, Gale crater.

The three types of rovers that NASA has landed on Mars. Right in front is the now-tiny ‘Sorjourner’ rover and behind that is a replica of the ‘Spirit’ and ‘Opportunity’ rovers. On the right is a replica of Curiosity. NASA/JPL

Curiosity is carrying a super package of instruments; the one I’m most excited about is called ChemMin. This small package uses x-ray diffraction and fluorescence and it’s hoped with identify minerals on the surface of Mars. It seems fantastic achievement that, 100 years since the discovery of x-ray diffraction from crystals, we’re now on the brink of doing this on another planet. It’s hoped that this little instrument (it’s about the size of a suitcase, where the powder diffraction instrument at Australian Synchrotron is as big as a bus) we be able to tell between minerals with water in them and those that don’t. This would allow us to map the progress of water on the surface, and under it – looking for nooks for the potential for life.

One group of minerals many scientist are particularly excited about finding are clays. It’s funny how boring old clays have suddenly become, well, rather sexy. From measurements from space it’s though clays are sporadic across the surface of Mars, suggesting that water only hung about on the surface for short periods of time. Opportunity, one of the rovers that landed in 2004 and is still trundling across the Martian surface, has found hints of many water-bearing minerals but is yet to detect the illusive clays.

And where does Australia play in all this? Well the success (or otherwise) of Curiosity’s 7 minutes of terror will be monitored by Canberra’s Deep Space Communication Complex. Managed by CSIRO, this complex will be one of the posts listening out for Curiosity as it sits on the surface of Mars. They are opening their doors on the 6th, so I’d encourage anyone in the Canberra area to head along, feel gripped by the tension and (all being well) marvel at Curiosity’s first pictures from Mars.

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