Where were you on the morning of 6 August this year? Chances are you were among the millions around the world watching the live feed of NASA’s Curiosity rover as it touched down on Mars. To say that the landing, which was seen by 50m in the US alone on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)’s website, was tense is an understatement; after making its 450 million kilometre journey from Earth to Mars, the rover had to decelerate from a speed of 20,000 km/h to zero in just fifteen minutes to effect a safe touchdown onto the Red Planet’s surface. It was by far the most complicated attempt to land on another planet that humans have so far attempted.
Dr Charles Elachi, JPL’s Lebanese-born director, puts perhaps the most astonishing scientific achievement of the century into context.
“After that journey, we had to land within a circle of about one kilometre, because we needed to land in a very specific spot,” he says. “That’s the same as if I hit a golf ball from Los Angeles to Dubai, and it has to come straight in the cup — that’s how accurate we had to be. And to make it just a little bit more challenging, the cup is moving at high speed.”
The tension surrounding the landing was ramped up not only by the fourteen-minute time delay that it took radio signals to beam back from Mars, but also due to the fact that the engineers and scientists at JPL could do nothing to affect the outcome once the landing process had been put in place.
In the end, of course, the landing went completely by the book. The JPL website received just over 1.8bn hits during the course of the next day, and President Barack Obama lauded the touchdown as “an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future”.
For Elachi, who is visiting Dubai to speak at the Arabian Business Forum, the success of Curiosity marks just another step in an astonishing journey that has taken him from the Lebanese town of Zahle via university in France to Pasadena, where the JPL is headquartered.
One of NASA’s field centres, JPL’s brief is not only to build and operate planetary spacecraft, but to conduct astronomic investigations into star systems, as well as operating the Deep Space Network, the global communications system that allows scientists here on Earth to talk to their spacecraft.
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Curiosity’s arrival on Mars was not NASA’s first landing on the planet; two far smaller rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, touched down on Mars in 2003, with the latter still reporting back to Earth. But Curiosity’s brief is of a far greater magnitude. Roughly about the size of a small car, the rover is perhaps best described as a “mobile chemist”; not only can it collect samples, but it can also heat them in its onboard oven, allowing scientists to see what kind of material has been emitted.
That ability has already paid off. In early December, samples from a site called Rocknest showed complex chemical compounds in the Martian soil. If organic compounds are located, along with the presence of water, then the building blocks of life could be present on Mars.
The potential presence of life on other planets is one of JPL’s primary missions, says Elachi. When asked whether he thinks that life could exist on Mars, he certainly isn’t ruling it out.
“I would be pleasantly surprised, but we don’t know for sure,” he says. “There might not be life on the surface; it could be beneath the surface or it could be extinct. But that’s one of the key objectives for our exploration — in our solar system is there anyway that life could have started?”
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