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Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Live from Mars

NASA's 'Curiosity' in Tidbinbilla

By Claire Corbett 
Cover: September 2012September 2012Medium length read
 

The valley surrounding Tidbinbilla is dotted with grazing cows unconcerned by the extraterrestrial murmurs being recorded by the big dishes tilted up to the sky. Arriving at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex – NASA-owned but CSIRO-operated – just after 9 am, we’re surprised to see only a few cars. Inside the visitor centre, though, a digital clock is counting down the seconds. Says the genial, harassed Glen Nagle, the outreach manager: “I’ve been fielding calls from Al Jazeera, NHK and Australian TV channels since 5 am.”

In just six hours’ time, Curiosity, the car-sized rover from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, is due to land on the red planet. The touchdown in Gale Crater will complete an eight and a half month journey, and Curiosity will then commence investigating whether conditions on Mars have ever been suitable for life.

The descent will be perilous. Tidbinbilla’s ‘big dish’ antennae are in prime position to relay signals from each stage to the Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) in California and, thanks to the alignment of planets in the solar system, will retain that importance for the next ten to 15 years. In anticipation of a successful landing, the complex is hosting a day-long public party.

Nagle explains to one news team why they cannot bring their van to broadcast from inside the complex: Tidbinbilla operates in radio silence, listening for “whispers from space” billions of times weaker than any stray wi-fi signal. Carl Sagan once observed that decades’ worth of signals from space contain less energy than a single snowflake falling to the ground.

In the Moon Rock Café I join my fellow ‘space tweeps’, alumni from CSIRO’s first, hugely successful gathering of Twitter followers held at Tidbinbilla in November 2011 for Curiosity’s launch. NASA has set the standard for engaging with social media, running dozens of dedicated Twitter streams for astronauts and robotic deep space explorers. It has even developed an Xbox game to simulate the intricate choreography of Curiosity’s landing, including the novel Heath Robinson–style sky crane. In the theatrette at Tidbinbilla, kids and adults compete to play.

Though the $2.5 billion cost of Curiosity represents less than 36 hours’ worth of US Department of Defense spending, NASA has recently suffered deep budget cuts. If today’s landing fails, an outcome many think likely, NASA could face a bleak future.

Come midday, Curiosity is 48,000 kilometres from Mars, travelling at 13,700 kilometres per hour. Tidbinbilla’s two smaller dishes have swung around to align with the big 70-metre dish locked onto Curiosity; they are communicating with two satellites orbiting Mars: Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance.

Nagle announces that wi-fi signals are being picked up in the control room. Would we please turn off mobiles and computers or switch them to aeroplane mode?

“Look at this,” says Jessica, a tweep. She’s baked a Mars Rover cake, complete with mission patches and iced to resemble the surface of Mars. The finishing touch is the Augmented Reality Rover, a NASA app showing a virtual 3D Curiosity running over the cake on the screen of her iPad.

With 25 minutes to landing, and counting, the main room is buzzing. “How many of my tweeps are here?” says Nagle. We wave and cheer. There must be three hundred people; it’s standing room only as we watch the live feed from the ‘Dark Room’ at JPL. The crowd becomes instantly fascinated by Bobak Ferdowsi, a young flight director sporting a red-and-blue mohawk and stars shaved into his hair. The news crews have trained their cameras on us, the audience. Our reactions provide the human face of the unfolding drama.

Thirteen minutes and 30 seconds to go and we hear the craft is lined up for entry to the atmosphere. Of course, in reality Curiosity has already landed, or failed: signals from Mars take 14 minutes at light speed to reach us.

Nagle says, “Is it just me or is it tense in here?” We laugh. At 9 minutes 20 seconds, Curiosity is picking up serious speed at over 20,000 kilometres per hour. We are now 30 seconds away from the infamous “7 minutes of terror” as we lose line-of-sight contact; Mars is now between us and Curiosity as it decelerates into the Martian atmosphere.

 At 3 minutes 53 seconds the link is made with Odyssey and contact with Curiosity is re-established. We hold our collective breath. Two minutes 23 seconds: Curiosity has survived its fiery descent but could still crash. At 1 minute 22 seconds the parachute deploys. We cheer. The heat shield has separated. Slowing to 320 kilometres per hour, Curiosity is 6.5 kilometres from its target and descending. Two children start counting down. “I think I’m about to have a coronary!” says Nagle.

Curiosity lands safely at 3.33 pm. We clap, cheer, whistle. Some cry. The blue shirts at JPL erupt, hugging, yelling, weeping. “We’ve got wheels on Mars!” exclaims Nagle. The first low-resolution black-and-white photos from Curiosity appear so quickly that we are more stunned by them than by the perfection of the landing. The social media storm engulfs NASA; all but one of its websites crashes under millions of hits. Some of us forgive the patriotic triumphalism of the NASA press conference, understanding it as a direct appeal to American taxpayers.

Later I remember that 6 August also commemorates the darker side of our technology: the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Is the outpouring of emotion for Curiosity a celebration of geek culture in a world where we now enjoy technological miracles on a daily basis? Or is it grander: joy in the pursuit of pure knowledge, largely unsullied by commercial, military or nationalistic agendas? Einstein could have been speaking for us when he said, perhaps disingenuously, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

CSIRO staff cut Jessica’s Mars cake. Nagle wants us to leave soon for the sake of the native animals, because darkness falls hard on these country roads. We do so and promptly lose our way. Curiosity successfully navigated over half a billion kilometres to Mars, but our GPS has been stumped by the back roads of Tidbinbilla.

About the author Claire Corbett
Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings.
@ccorbettauthor