By: Keith Campbell
17th November 2011
The South African National Space Agency’s (Sansa's) Space Operations directorate will be supporting the launch of America’s latest Mars probe, the $2.3-billion Mars Science Laboratory. This was revealed by Sansa on Thursday.
“It is a privilege to be 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,” said Sansa Space Operations telemetry, tracking and control international contract manager Tiaan Strydom.
The new probe is scheduled to be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Florida, on November 25 – although the launch window extends until December 18, so allowing for delays in case of glitches or bad weather. It will be carried aloft on an Atlas V/541 launch rocket. The key event that will be monitored by Sansa Space Operations’ Hartbeesthoek Telemetry Station will be the separation of the Mars Science Laboratory from the the Atlas V launch vehicle.
The Mars Science Laboratory is the latest mission in the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) Mars Exploration Programme, which is managed for the agency by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology (better known as Caltech).
When the Mars Science Laboratory lands on the surface of the Red Planet – scheduled for the period August 6 to August 20, 2012, in the 154 km diameter Gale Crater – it will deploy a rover vehicle named Curiosity. This is more than five times more massive than, and has ten times the mass of the scientific instruments carried by, each of Nasa’s previous Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. (Opportunity is still active, seven years after landing on Mars in 2004, although it was only intended to work for three months. Spirit lasted six years, failing last year.)
Curiosity is designed to operate for at least one Martian year (686 Earth days). One of its main missions is to gather information that will help determine whether Mars ever was, and could still be, able to support microbial life. It will be able to analyse soil samples scooped from the surface and powders created by drilling into rocks.