Yesterday I was out at the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla to witness a piece of space history – the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (a.k.a. ‘Curiosity’) on Mars. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of coverage of this amazing feat of maths, physics, and engineering in the last day or two, so I’ll skip all that and just share my experience.
Here are a few pix I snagged during the day…
Early in the day, the 70m dish (DSS43) and smaller DSS34 (hidden) are pointed towards where Mars will soon rise over the horizon, so that they’re ready to acquire the signal. Tidbinbilla was the primary receiving site for the landing, as none of the other two sites in the Deep Space Network around the globe had line-of-sight to Mars at the time. Just like in the movie The Dish, Australia’s space tracking stations were key to communicating with the spacecraft during the most critical phases of the mission.
‘Mission Control’ at CDSCC showing the NASA TV feed as well as a live feed from NASA’s Eyes On the Solar System web app. Eyes takes real-time telemetry data from NASA and displays a rendered view of the spacecraft that can be manipulated in 3D in real-time. We’re living in the future, man! About 300 people packed the visitor centre in a standing-room-only display of ‘nerd pride’…
The tracking schedule is displayed on a screen in the CDSCC visitor centre. MSL = Mars Science Laboratory, MRO = Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite already in orbit around Mars which was relaying the signal when we couldn’t communicate directly with Curiosity. And down the bottom you can see that they still listen to Voyager 1 (VGR1), which has recently reached the absolute edge of our solar system and is heading out into interstellar space. Voyager 1 is currently 18,109,773,597km from earth, and we can still communicate with it even though its on-board transmitter is less powerful than your average mobile phone!
DSS43 tracking Curiosity prior to landing, as seen from the ‘Moon Rock Café’ in the visitor centre.
Tense times in the JPL control room during the final hours before EDL (entry-descent-landing).
More mission staff at JPL before landing, including the now nerd-famous ‘NASA Mohawk Guy’, Bobak Ferdowsi. Note how much larger Mars has grown in the Eyes image at bottom left compared to the previous image…
Here’s a pic of our mission cake with a ‘virtual Curiosity’ superimposed over it by using NASA’s Spacecraft 3D app on the iPad. Using an ‘augmented reality target’ placed on an object, the app allows you to see a 3D model of spacecraft which appear to live in the real world. Very cool.
Glen Nagle (@astro0_umsf) from CSIRO, who runs the science outreach programme, cuts the mission cake in celebration of an amazingly-successful mission. If you’ve never been out to the CDSCC, I recommend you make the trip some time – there’s heaps of really cool space stuff out there, even on a ‘normal’ day. Kudos too to Vanessa Hill (@nessyhill) from CSIRO for her work in making the event happen and run smoothly.
…and it dawned on me today that there were precisely two über-cool places on earth to watch the MSL EDL – the NASA facilities directly involved, JPL and CDSCC. And I was at one of them! :-D
If you missed the coverage, or just want to see an amazingly cool video, check out NASA’s backgrounder on the so-called ‘7 Minutes of Terror’ that Curiosity had to go through to get down safely on the surface of Mars.