||05 August 2012 07:00
Linda De Jager
Devi Sankaree Govender
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
Namibia? No, this is the surface of Mars, the red planet named after the Roman god of war.
Once shrouded in myth, NASA is determined to unveil all her secrets with their long-term robotic exploration programmes.
Building on several other missions in the past, rovers already landed on Mars in 2004 in search of answers about the history of water on Mars.
Dr Japie van Zyl, who grew up in Namibia and studied at Stellenbosch University, is associate director at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
He is instrumental in launching NASA's latest and most sophisticated rover to date - 'Curiosity'.
Dr Japie van Zyl (Jet Propulsion Laboratory): "The Curiosity mission builds on several previous missions to Mars and every time when we go there we learn something new. In 2004 when we went there we have learned both from the rovers that we have sent there, as well as from orbiting spacecraft around Mars, that not only was there water before, there are minerals that we know on Earth only form in water."
Curiosity's launch, in November 2011 was met with the trademark jubilations amongst the inner circle of scientists who reach for the stars in this way.
Dr Van Zyl: "In my earlier career I built instruments just like the young engineers now do at JPL. And you never forget the excitement of finishing something like that and launching it, and seeing the results coming back."
About 700 JPL scientists and about a thousand contractors were involved in this mission.
For Japie it all started while camping with his father in Kaokoland, watching Namibia's spectacular night skies.
Dr Van Zyl: "You are seeing the stars and remembering seeing the first star that appeared to move. And I asked my dad, 'Why is that one moving?' And he said, 'That is a spacecraft; it is a satellite.' So he explained to me that they launch these things from Florida and I told him that is where I am going... one day I am going to be working on those things."
In 2009 alone, Japie helped launch five satellites successfully. And, early tomorrow morning, Curiosity will reach the red planet... 450 million kilometres later.
But this mission carries more than someone's childhood aspirations. As it moves through space at a staggering 21 000km/h, it also carries the hopes and aspirations of a whole generation of scientists.
And this is not an all-American dream anymore...
Dr Van Zyl: "These kinds of missions happen so infrequently that everyone wants to participate in it, obviously. And they are very expensive."
Curiosity comes with a $2-billion price tag.
Dr Van Zyl: "It is almost to the point where a single nation can no longer afford to do these things by themselves. We often collaborate with other space agencies."
South Africa also played its part in this quest for knowledge at Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory.
Bongani Bingwa (Carte Blanche presenter): "In Space exploration terms, in a sense I am standing on holy ground. It was built as a NASA tracking station in the '60s. In fact, the very first black and white photographs of planet Mars were received right here on South African soil."
Dr Michael Gaylard is Managing Director of Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory. He says the control room still looks very much the same.
Dr Michael Gaylard (Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory): "These [was] the first pictures close-up, the first time that craters were actually identified on Mars. It is so far away that no one could make them out on Earth before. So this was groundbreaking."
[Recording form Hartebeesthoek, 1965] We have a good picture coming we... we have a good picture coming in."
Dr Van Zyl: "Even today, JPL often uses Hartebeesthoek as the place where we pick up the signals from our spacecraft the first time after they separate from our launch vehicles."
Bongani: "To get a proper perspective on what a monumental achievement a rover like Curiosity is, an average aeroplane flying at 800km/h would take 17 years to get to Mars. Curiosity will do it in eight months."
Dr Van Zyl: "The Curiosity rover is the largest rover we have ever launched and sent to another planet; it is about the size of a Mini Cooper car."
Curiosity weighs a staggering three tonnes. This makes it extra difficult to land. And landing on Mars is notoriously difficult... one could say that Mars is a breaking ground for spacecraft.
Dr Van Zyl: "Throughout the history, only 50% of the spacecraft that were launched from the Earth, by all the space agencies combined, made it to Mars."
Michael: "Landing is the tricky bit - that is when most crashes occur."
Dr Van Zyl: "And of the landers... only 60% of the landers actually landed on Mars."
But why is it such a challenge?
Dr Van Zyl: "The Martian atmosphere is only 1% that of the Earth... it is just enough to hurt your spacecraft, but it is not enough to stop it like we do on Earth."
In this seven minute trip to the surface of Mars, they have to slow down from around 13 000mph [21 000km/h] to zero.
Curiosity has to hit the atmosphere at just the right angle; endure extreme heat from friction as it descends right through the atmosphere; open its parachute at just the right time; use radar to know exactly how high it is; free itself from the parachute; perfectly fire eight rocket engines to slow final descent; drop down dangling on four cables; lock its wheels into place just before landing; and cut the cables just before the moment of touchdown.
Previous missions allowed for the rovers to bounce upon landing.
Dr Van Zyl: "We had to come up with a completely different way. Some people call us crazy... we think sometimes it is crazy, but we have tested everything."
Bongani: "Perhaps a touch of madness is indeed required to go into Space. The rest of us can only stand in awe."
Dr Van Zyl: "We have done everything humanly possible to test this rover and this spacecraft to make sure we land safely on Mars."
Years of preparations tested all aspects of this technological wonder on all terrains and circumstances.
Curiosity was designed to live for one Martian year (equivalent to two years on Earth).
The lab has 17 cameras, ten state-of-the-art scientific instruments, a laser beam, a drill and a robotic arm.
When this robot sees a stone or rock that looks interesting, it will shoot a laser beam that will function like a torch, which enables scientists to analyse it.
And it is the outcome of this analysis that fascinates scientists like Prof Francis Thackeray, Director of the South African Institute of Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand.
For him, meteorites that fall to earth hold the geological stories of the planets they come from.
Prof Francis Thackeray (WITS Institute of Human Evolution): "Now, because certain missions have gone to Mars and have done the chemical analyses, we can identify a Martian rock based on its chemistry. And there are more than 12 meteorites that we have known to have come originally from Mars and we can study those."
Prof Thackeray puts an intriguing spin on the data that previous Mars rovers already send back to Earth.
Bongani: "So, taken together, what can be concluded from the study of the Phoenix and Viking planetary programmes?"
Prof Thackeray: "There probably is a form of microbial life on Mars at the present time. Curiosity is likely to confirm that, and the interesting thing is that we know that microbial life on Earth existed 3.5 billion years ago."
This is in the form of fossil rocks from Barberton, South Africa.
Prof Thackeray: "Bacterial life can exist on Earth in a number of different kinds of environments. My colleague, Joe Kersvinck, has done magnetic analyses on different kinds of bacteria. He analysed the same kind of structures on Martian rock and found that there was a high probability that he was looking at fossil bacteria that has existed about... probably about four billion years ago."
Bongani: "But now this all implies that there may have been evidence for life on Mars at least a billion years before the earliest fossil records on this planet."
Prof Thackeray: "This is controversial. I have seen the evidence at the California Institute of Technology."
These are some of the reasons why Curiosity does not only want to land anywhere on Mars. The landing spot is specifically selected to get closer to the best rock samples.
Dr Van Zyl: "We selected the crater as the landing spot, but we are interested in the mountain that is inside the crater. It is called Mount Sharp and it is about six kilometres high. And the reason why we picked Mount Sharp - it is made up of layered rocks. Layered rocks trap the history... the geologic history... of Mars with the older rocks at the bottom, the younger rocks at the top. This rover will drive up Mount Sharp and study basically the history of Mars... and look for signs of past life on Mars. That is why we picked it."
Will this landing on Mount Sharp be successful? By the time NASA gets the signal, everything would have already happened.
Michael: "What is happening is pre-programmed and we will only know seven minutes after it happened whether something went wrong, or whether it landed safely."
Dr Van Zyl: "It is that delay in time, plus the harsh environment, that makes it so challenging to land on Mars."
Scientific analyses however will be almost immediate.
Dr Van Zyl: "The rover is actually a chemical laboratory. So we can take samples from the surface of Mars, put it inside the rover and analyse it right there and send the results back to the Earth."
These chemical results will continue to unlock the mysteries of Mars. The journey of wonder and knowledge continues.
Dr Van Zyl: "This is not just a few scientists in Pasadena California that is going to Mars; this is mankind. We are all in this together. We are all trying to understand, and the data will be shared with everybody. So let us hope we all learn some great things together on this one."
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.