Newsmaker: A curious future

2012-08-11 18:37

It looks like an automated insect, with long, spiky legs, an elongated neck like a giraffe’s and tank-like wheels that evoke images of Saddam Hussein and the Iraq War drones.

It may as well be a distant cousin of Twiki, the outer-space character from the 1980s TV series Buck Rogers, with a rectangular head and eyes that emit laser rays.

It’s a curious little thing called Curiosity. They say it’s the size of a Mini Cooper. And it’s on a mission to establish whether there was – or is – life on Mars.

The US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is interested in the affairs of such distant planets – because curiosity doesn’t just kill cats, it takes probes to space.

They say it will spend the next two years engaged in Dakar Rally-like antics on Mars.

It is expected to do some serious Mars bashing, all the way taking high-resolution photographs and rock and sand samples with laser beams.

These will be relayed back to Earth where they will be analysed by equally curious scientists who will relay their findings to a curious world.

While many across the globe nursed hangovers of Olympic proportions, Curiosity touched down on Mars early on Monday morning causing
much excitement in the scientific world.

This Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, US, in November last year. It took longer to get to Mars than it took Caster Semenya to qualify for the 800m finals.

According to Nasa, Curiosity landed near the base of a “layered mountain”, 5km high, inside the Gale Crater on Mars.

Nasa said in a statement: “Planetary geologists are intrigued because data from the US Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest the low-lying crater floor was once wet with water.

“Scientists also think the site might be rife with organics – carbonaceous compounds that are key chemical building blocks for life.

“During a prime mission lasting one Martian year – nearly two Earth years – researchers will use the rover’s tools to study whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favourable for supporting microbial life and favourable for preserving clues about whether life existed.”

So far, Curiosity has sent only good news and pretty pictures of sunsets, but no reports of Martians saying “ulla”.

Curiosity also got the better of South Africans.

Dr Jakob Van Zyl, who is Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) associate director for project formulation and strategy, and who worked on the project, is also an extraordinary professor at the University of Stellenbosch’s electrical and electronics engineering faculty.

Van Zyl, who has worked at the JPL since 1986, is responsible for overseeing long-term strategic planning and developing new projects.

Professor Herman Steyn, the chair of the electrical and electronic engineering department at Stellenbosch, said Van Zyl visited two weeks before Curiosity landed on Mars.

Steyn and his department have been involved in space exploration before. They developed Africa’s first fully indigenous satellite (Sunsat-1), which was launched in 1999. They also helped to develop, test and commission SumbandilaSat (which now spies on us from above).

But the university is not the only local link to Curiosity.

The South African National Space Agency also helped Nasa to track their robot after it was launched into space.

But does all this help us? Should we care? Will we be able to send our prisoners to Mars one day?

Join the conversation!

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