Update: The mission launch date and time have changed since the podcast was recorded, the current launch window starts at 2:02 am Sunday 27 November AEDT.
Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. On November 25 NASA will launch a new mission to Mars with the Science Laboratory, forming part of a long term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. The rover, named Curiosity, will assess the planet’s habitability.
Expected to arrive at Mars in August of 2012, Curiosity is larger than NASA’s earlier Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and will be powered by a nuclear battery containing Plutonium 238, rather than using solar panels, meaning it will be able to travel further.
To ensure Curiosity stays on track CSIRO’s Canberra Deep Space Communication complex, as part of NASA’s Deep Space network, will provide a vital communications gateway between the rover and the mission teams on earth.
Joining me to discuss the mission is Operations Manager, Len Ricardo, from CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, and Glen Nagle, Research Support Manager at the Canberra Deep Space Communication complex. Firstly Len, how important is the communication complex to this mission?
Len Ricardo: It's the lynchpin for the launch activity. Once the spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral we’d see it about 50 minutes later as it comes round from the west. If we don’t find it we’ve got problems.
Glen Paul: And then you’ll follow it all the way to Mars, and you’ll be then taking information from the rover itself?
Len Ricardo: Yes. We’ll actually be up the (indistinct word – 1:28) into the atmosphere over Mars as it goes into Gale crater.
Glen Paul: Right. Now there’s three deep space communications facilities that make up the network, Goldstone California, Madrid in Spain, and Tidbinbilla just outside of Canberra, which are placed obviously to compensate for the earth’s rotation, so what’s the communications window with Mars from Canberra?
Len Ricardo: The three sites are located roughly geographically 120 degrees apart, so depending on the orbit of the spacecraft, we see a spacecraft for a minimum of eight hours, anything up to 14 hours, but it all depends on where it sits in the solar system at the time.
For Mars, during the launch period, we’ll see the spacecraft for about eight hours. Once we get to Mars we’ll see it for anything up to 14 hours a day.
Glen Paul: OK. So what sort of information will you receive and send to the rover during that time?
Len Ricardo: We’ll be sending commands to the spacecraft periodically. Primarily the communications with the spacecraft back to earth will be via a relay through either Mars Reconnaissance Obiter or Mars Odyssey.
They have a UHF link which they can collect a much greater data sample from the spacecraft. The spacecraft has a small antenna on it, and it has an excellent UHF link, and we’ll rely on the UHF link to relay the data through one of the other two spacecraft.
The advantage is with a relay the other two spacecraft are in orbit so we can see them far more regularly during any one day, whereas with the rover, because it’s sitting on the surface we can only see it for a certain period of time each day, and sometimes during the orbit of Mars, and the rotation of Mars, we can’t actually see the spacecraft. So we have the advantage with the relay that we can get data from it everyday, every time we do a support of Mars.
Glen Paul: Hmm. Yeah, I was wondering how that did work. So Glen, what are the big differences between this rover and its predecessors?
Glen Nagle: Well with Spirit and Opportunity, you’ve identified already they were solar powered spacecraft, they were relatively small, so the size of a golf cart, they were limited in their distances that they were planned to drive – they were originally supposed to be a 90 day mission, and maybe travel 600 metres. As it turned out of course they lasted for many years and drove for tens of kilometres across the surface, and rover Opportunity is still going.
The difference with Curiosity is larger vehicle. This one has a nuclear battery power source onboard; generate a little bit more power. It will allow the rover to do more operationally, so it’ll still do the same amount of sort of driving daytime wise as the current rovers, but it’s got a range of at least 20 kilometres, and a prime mission of about two years, so a little bit more than the rovers. But if the current rovers are anything to go by, we’ll end up speaking to this robot for decades and it’ll be travelling halfway round the planet – that would be a great thing.
The other thing with Curiosity is the current rovers they could study the rocks and the soil, they could help us characterise the Martian environment, but they didn’t have the instruments to tell us whether there was life there, to search for the organic material. And that’s the job for Curiosity. It has a full science lab onboard, a great suite of instruments, drills, mass spectrometers, high powered microscopes to be able to see things down literally to the micron scale, and it will really be able to characterise Mars, and give us hopefully a better idea whether there was ever life on Mars, or whether there’s life still there today.
Glen Paul: Hmm, and I’m sure that’s a question we’d all like to have answered. Aside from that, what’s the mission paving the way for? What’s the ultimate goal?
Len Ricardo: I think the ultimate goal, if NASA still has its way and gets the finance from Congress, is to put a man on the surface of Mars so we can explore it more intuitively. With a robot you can do all sorts of things, but the robot still doesn’t have that cognisance to look at other things and discriminate easily between two objects. A man can easily discriminate between two objects and say that’s a far better object to look at than object X.
A robot, you’ve got to try and take a guess from a distance, and try and make a decision whether that rock’s better than another rock. So there’s a thought process, a much longer decision process before you can decide which way to go or not.
Glen Paul: Right. Now over the years of course we’ve heard plenty of dates being put forward as to when a manned mission to Mars might be happening – 2020 was floating around a few years back – what is the timeframe realistically when this is likely to happen?
Glen Nagle: Well I think of course that we’ve probably been talking about sending humans to Mars in the next 30 years, but I think we’ve probably been saying 30 years for the last 30 years.
When we go to Mars, we’ll go when we’re ready. I think that’s the key thing. We don’t have a space race anymore, it’s now not an imperative of an ideological political battle, it's now about the science.
And we are doing more and more cooperatively now, lots of different countries exploring. Not only is Curiosity heading off to Mars at the end of this month, but basically within the next one or two weeks Russia and China are launching missions off to the Martian environment, not to land on the planet, but to visit the Martian moon Phobos, and to also go into orbit around Mars.
And all this information that we collect from all these robotic missions, I think potentially one day leaders, if it's not one nation going off to send humans to Mars, it’ll be many nations working together.
I think the more and more we cooperate doing things robotically, and the more science we share with each other, and not doing contradictory science but complementary science for each other, the more we will head towards that ultimate goal of not doing another one small step for man for one particular country, but doing it literally and slightly cliché for all humanity.
Glen Paul: Yeah, kind of touching on the whole Star Trek view of space exploration. Now, for fans of Twitter, CSIRO is running a launch tweetup on November 25 and 26, in conjunction with the launch. What can people expect from that?
Glen Nagle: Well the idea of a tweetup, NASA’s been doing this for many years, and we thought this is a great activity for CSIRO to get involved in. The idea of a tweetup is you bring people who use Twitter – we call them Tweeps – to come along, they get invited to an event to talk about a subject that they have an interest in, and in this case we’re talking about space science.
You try to tie it into an event – and what we’re doing is tying it into the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory – they’ll get to come to the Deep Space Tracking Station, we’re going to give them a little bit of a behind the scenes tour, and they’ll get to hear from a whole range of interesting Mission Scientists.
We’ve brought together people who have worked on selection of the landing sites for the Mars rovers, and for the Mars Science Laboratory; we’ve got Scientists who have worked on the Japanese mission, Hayabusa, which returned samples from an asteroid; we’ve got other Scientists who are working on earth orbiting missions like the GRACE spacecraft, and also doing atmospheric research with high altitude balloons.
So this is a chance to showcase Aussies doing science, and with the public coming along being there, they can ask the direct questions, the questions that probably all of us would like to ask, and then they Tweet that answer out onto the internet, putting it there in layman’s terms, using 140 characters or less, so their message has to be concise, and the beautiful thing about having people do that is you spread your message much further.
We’ve already started tweeting about the event, and people can follow along on Twitter using the hash tag CSIROTweetup, and they can see that we’ve already gotten out to tens of thousands of people, and this is still three weeks out from the event.
Glen Paul: And what time does the actual launch take place Australian time?
Glen Nagle: So for us it’s happening at 2:21am local time, on the morning of Saturday the 26th, and Len I believe it’s a two hour launch window?
Len Ricardo: Yes, we’ve got two hours to launch the spacecraft, so there's plenty of opportunities during that time.
We've had challenges in the past with Juno, and Juno had an hour and forty minute launch window, we had all sorts of interesting challenges during the Juno launch – we had a hydrogen leak which they ascertained was actually the lines running to the spacecraft launch vehicle, not on the spacecraft itself.
They got that resolved and then somebody on a boat decided that they were going to go into the launch danger area, so we can now move those people out. Eventually we launched almost an hour into the launch window. I expect that if everything goes well then we should launch on the first attempt.
Glen Paul: And if there is any drama such as that with this launch people can find out about it just by following on Twitter.
Len Ricardo: Yes.
Glen Nagle: Yeah, follow it live, and also watch it live on NASA TV, which you can actually watch through the NASA website, nasa.gov, and its live stream there as well.
Glen Paul: Well it sounds like it’s going to be a very interesting night and I wish you both the best of luck with the tweetup, and of course the main mission itself. Thanks for talking to me today.
Len Ricardo: Thanks very much.
Glen Nagle: Thank you.
Len Ricardo: And we look forward to the fun.
Glen Paul: Len Ricardo and Glen Nagle. For more information find us online at www.csiro.au. You can like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter at CSIROnews.