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Aug 24, 2012

Latest Mars landing part of mankind pushing the frontiers

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Aspectacular achievement has been the landing of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. I have followed every move of the project since long before it was even launched. This is exciting.

Curiosity is the most complex interplanetary rover ever designed, and it travelled 566-million kilometres before reaching its destination in the Gale Crater. The mission’s destination is a mountain at the centre of Gale Crater called Mount Sharp. The geologists have figured out that the mountain should have exposed layers of rock from various past ages, and so it should be a good place to examine Martian history. There are geological signs that Mars was a warmer and wetter place once upon a time. One of the mission’s goals is to figure out how Mars transformed. Perhaps, we will even find signs of life.

When Curiosity landed, many people around the world watched it on TV and were swept up in the excitement. They are now waiting for the fun pictures to arrive. However, it must be borne in mind that this is a serious scientific expedition that is conducted by scientific rules. The rover will not make its first drive or move its robotic arm for weeks – the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) will first run a long series of checks and procedures to make sure that all is well after the long journey.

The landing was really complex. Mars has a very thin atmosphere – not enough for earthlike parachutes to work, but enough to damage the spacecraft if it went too fast. So, as it came into the Martian atmosphere, a parachute was used to provide some braking; then it was cut loose. A rocket- powered spacecraft then lowered Curiosity on long cables like a construction site crane. At the last moment, the cables were cut and the descending spacecraft shot away and crashed some distance away.

There are a huge number of things that could have gone wrong, so it was quite reasonable for everyone concerned, as well as the public, to wait nervously to see if the complex operation would work. A few days into the mission, Mike Watkins, the mission manager, said the rover was, basically, continuing to behave flawlessly.

Just after Curiosity had landed, an excited team from Nasa made the announcement that all had gone according to plan. I watched with interest. It was a pity that the Nasa spokesperson said that America had again shown its dominance, with quite the gusto that he did. There have been many countries involved along the road to where the project is now. South Africa played a part in the launch too, so the Curiosity team should rather play to the international involvement, as was stated by former President George W Bush.

Some people have told me that they are disappointed with the first images that have been sent back. One of the first was an uninteresting black-and-white image showing one wheel of Curiosity and some ground. Folks, be patient; the good stuff is yet to come. The spacecraft is following a scientific protocol. The picture of the wheel is to get a quick answer regarding the type of surface Curiosity has landed on. It could have landed in a metre-deep bowl of fine dust and could have been sinking into the ground. They might have had to take urgent action to do something about that. The rover also took quick black-and-white pictures all around so that the scientific team could rapidly get an idea of what the surrounding area looked like, for planning purposes.

They will now carefully go through all sorts of system checks – believe me, there is a long list – before they instruct the rover to move. When they move, they will do so carefully. After all the effort that has been expended to get this far, the team is not going to rush anything now.

Why go to Mars, you may ask. No doubt, people asked Christopher Columbus why he wanted to go west across a large ocean to nothing. People must have asked Vasco Da Gama why he wanted to go south down the coast of Africa. They went because of dreams. They found new lands, and new sea routes. The seafarers of old did not know if there was anything over the horizon. There were even beliefs that, over the horizon, there were dragons and death. At least, when Curiosity started its mission, we knew that Mars was there.

I am sure that, one day, not too far away, there will be bases on Mars and people will stay there for periods, just as they do now in the Antarctic. We do not know what they may find but it is the nature of mankind to explore.

Missions such as this also demand leading- edge technology, and smart folks get to use it and to think about it. This tends to lead to general advances for mankind. Many items that the public use everyday, such as computers, cellphones, the global positioning system and much more, owe their existence to leading-edge scientific missions that pushed the frontiers for mankind.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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