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Canadians approach Mars with Curiosity

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WHILE Canadian scientists are keeping their fingers crossed as NASA's Curiosity -- the largest Mars rover ever built -- heads for a rendezvous with the red planet this weekend, some more down to Earth Canadians are planning Mars landing parties.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/08/2012 (3831 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WHILE Canadian scientists are keeping their fingers crossed as NASA’s Curiosity — the largest Mars rover ever built — heads for a rendezvous with the red planet this weekend, some more down to Earth Canadians are planning Mars landing parties.

The owner of a recording studio in Winnipeg is opening his doors to anyone who wants to drop by in the evening, talk about space and watch the Mars landing on a large screen.

“We’re going to have Mars-related movies, discussions and popcorn,” said Ervin Bartha, the owner of the Clear Light Sound studio.

The 61-year-old recording engineer has been interested in astronomy from a very early age and is a member of Carl Sagan’s Planetary Society.

“The moon landing was in 1969 and a lot of people on the planet saw that and now we can actually see an interplanetary spacecraft landing live,” Bartha said.

“That’s almost too incredible to understand.”

Similar in size to a compact car, the spacecraft was launched eight months ago with a Canadian instrument aboard. The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), one of 10 instruments on the Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL), will help hunt for signs of life.

On Monday at 12:31 a.m., many eyes will be focused on NASA’s unique sky-crane landing system, which will be used to lower the $2.5-billion rover onto the Martian soil.

After it enters the atmosphere, a parachute will slow the spacecraft down and as Curiosity gets within metres of the Martian surface, nylon cables on the landing system will lower it to the ground.

Jonathan Moneta, who runs a small Toronto engineering firm, used money from his own pocket to put together a party expected to draw 200 people to a downtown hotel.

He said just the process of landing Curiosity deserves attention.

“Why? Because this is a daring landing,” he said. “It’s super-exciting and terrifying.”

The University of Guelph’s Ralf Gellert is the lead scientist on the Canadian contribution, which cost $17.8 million to develop.

The APXS, an instrument the size of a soup can, was funded by the Canadian Space Agency and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates was the prime contractor. It works off the end of the rover’s robotic arm and will analyze the chemical composition of Martian soil.

One of the scientists on the Canadian APXS team is from Western University in London, Ont. The university is opening the doors of the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory this evening for a free get-together.

There will be a live NASA feed of the landing and, weather permitting, telescopes will be pointed at Mars.

University spokesman Keith Marnoch said he’s expecting a big turnout.

“The observatory is well known for being able to host events that have to do with astronomy,” he said in an interview.

“The last few times, we’ve had hundreds of people show up to these types of events.”

The Canadian Space Agency will also play host to 10 Twitter users at its headquarters near Montreal, while a Mars landing party is planned at the Cosmodome, a space science centre in Laval, north of Montreal.

The Canadian Space Agency’s Stephane Desjardins points out it’s the second time Canada is going to have a science instrument working on Mars.

The first was on the Phoenix Mission, when Canada provided a meteorological station for the Mars Lander, which operated during the summer of 2008.

“We landed on the north pole of Mars where signs of water had been found and the Phoenix mission confirmed there was actually frozen water underneath the lander,” Desjardins noted.

The CSA’s director of space exploration projects said Curiosity rover’s job is to look for conditions that would support life.

“The objective is to understand the geology, look for signs Mars could have supported life, or still has the conditions to support life,” he said in an interview. “The importance at the moment is to see what we can learn from that mission and learn about the history of the planet.”

But don’t expect an earthling to set foot on Mars any time soon.

Desjardins said a lot of technology still needs to be developed before that can happen.

“The ultimate goal could be the human exploration of Mars, but at the moment we are doing robotic exploration and the next step we would be looking at is to bring back samples,” he said.

— The Canadian Press

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