Aussie scientists transmit first Mars images

By AAP with AG staff 8 August 2012
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Just like we played a crucial role in the Moon landing, Aussie scientists have helped relay the first Mars images.

THE AUSTRALIAN TEAM WHO helped guide NASA’s rover Curiosity safely to the surface of Mars is over the moon about its role in the $2.6 billion mission.

The Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla, about 40km from the national capital, played a key communications role in Curiosity’s rapid descent to the landing zone in the Gale Crater.

The scientific exploration vehicle touched down about 3.33pm (AEST) on Monday to cheers, tears and applause at the NASA command centre in California and at the Canberra complex, which is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Aussie role in transmitting first Mars picture

Soon after, Tidbinbilla transmitted the first photograph – a black and white image showing one of the wheels of Curiosity touching the Martian soil.

“Today, right now, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars,” NASA administrator Charlie Balden told journalists by videolink from California. “This is an amazing achievement made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world.”

Charlie thanked the 107 scientists at Tidbinbilla, the only one of three Deep Space Network stations facing Mars for the descent.

“The Deep Space Network was what made it possible for us to be getting all the data and everything,” he said.

The rover and the spacecraft carrying it took about seven minutes from when they entered the Martian atmosphere until the rover hit the surface.

“Terrifying” 14-minute wait for Curiosity success

Because of the immense distance involved, radio signals confirming the landing took 14 minutes to reach the Earth.

Scientists were desperate to confirm its safe arrival after completing a series of complex engineering feats to bring the rover down.

“By the time we receive the first signals here to say that we’ve entered the atmosphere of Mars, the spacecraft has been on the surface, alive or dead, for at least seven minutes,” Tidbinbilla complex spokesman Glen Nagle said. “That’s terrifying.”

Almost 200 people crammed into the Tidbinbilla station’s visitor centre to watch the live stream from NASA command.

They included former CSIRO scientists Hamish Lindsay and Terry Lloyd, who were involved in tracking the Apollo 11 moon landing, and US ambassador Jeffrey Bleich.

Mars mission to find evidence of life

The 950kg rover, which left Earth on November 26, now begins a 23-month mission to examine the crater area around its landing spot and climb a 5km mountain.

Curiosity is searching for carbon compounds that could indicate life on Mars.

“We’re not looking for life but the possibility of it,” Glen said. “If life is ever detected somewhere as close as Mars it could mean life is everywhere throughout the universe.”