South Africa to assist Nasa Mars mission

18 November 2011

The South African Space Agency’s (Sansa’s) Space Operations directorate has been selected by the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to provide tracking services for the launch of its latest Mars mission.

The Mars Science Laboratory is a Nasa mission that aims to land and operate a rover, named Curiosity, on the surface of Mars.

The US$2.3-billion mission is part of Nasa’s long-term programme to explore Mars via robotic devices.

The spacecraft will be launched on an Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and Sansa Space Operations’ Hartbeeshoek Telemetry Station support will be required during the launch.

“It is a privilege to be a part of this space mission, and this gives testament to the technological expertise that is available in South Africa to support such large-scale investments,” Sansa Space Operation’s tracking, telemetry and control international contract manager, Tiaan Strydom, said in a statement this week.

Sansa will be paid for providing their services to the Americans, though the amount has not been disclosed.

Perfect view

The Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to launch between 25 November and 18 December, and to land on Mars at Gale Crater between 6 and 20 August 2012. It will try to perform the first-ever precision landing on Mars.

The separation of the Mars Science Laboratory from the Atlas rocket will occur within perfect view of the Hartbeeshoek Telemetry Station for multiple launch opportunities during the launch period.

The Curiosity rover will help assess Mars’ habitability, that is, whether Mars is or ever was an environment able to support microbial life. It will also analyse samples scooped from the soil and powders drilled from rocks.

The Curiosity rover will be more than five times the size, and carry more than ten times the mass of scientific instruments, as the previous two rovers sent to the planet, Spirit and Opportunity.

The new rover will be expected to operate for at least one Martian year (686 Earth days) as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover.

SAinfo reporter

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