CSIRO a-Twitter over rocket launch to Mars

By November 23rd, 2011

CSIRO is hosting a 'tweetup' at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex to mark the launch of NASA's next Mars mission.

An hour after NASA launches its next Mars mission next Sunday morning [27 November], the tracking station near Canberra will be locking on to the signal from the spacecraft – and fifty-odd onlookers will be tweeting to the world.

In the run-up to the launch the “tweetup” group will have rare access to operational areas of the tracking station (whose formal name is the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC)), which CSIRO operates on behalf of NASA.

They’ll also get to chat with a range of interesting mission scientists, “people who’ve worked on landing sites for this mission, on sample returns from asteroids, and on Earth-orbiting spacecraft,” said Glen Nagle, CSIRO Education and Outreach Manager at the station, who has organised the tweetup.

“If the current rovers are anything to go by, we’ll end up speaking to this robot for decades and it’ll be traveling halfway around the planet.”

Mr Len Ricardo, CSIRO CDSCC Operations Manager

“NASA has run tweetups since 2009 but this is the first such NASA-related activity in Australia.” The tweetup program kicks off at 3 pm AEDT on Friday. Excitement is already building on #CSIROTweetup. Randomly selected, the “tweeps” taking part include teachers, engineers, photographers, scientists and writers.

They come from up and down eastern Australia and from as far afield as Portland, Oregon, and San Diego, California. What links them is their love of science and space exploration. The Canberra station and its counterparts in California and Spain will be NASA’s lifeline to the spacecraft, sending commands and receiving data. Canberra is key for the launch, says CSIRO CDSCC Operations Manager Len Ricardo.

“Once the spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral we’ll see it about 50 minutes later as it comes round from the west. If we don’t find it we’ve got problems.”

The Mars Science Laboratory is the largest and most complex machine ever to land on Mars. A 900-kilo robot and lab in one, it will scour the surface of Mars with HD cameras, checking the composition of soil and rocks with microscopes and spectrometers, even drilling into rocks and testing samples on the spot.

It will search for signs of habitability – the ability of the planet to support life, now or in the past. Bigger and beefier than previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Science Laboratory has been nicknamed Curiosity. Unlike its predecessors it will carry its own power, in the form of a nuclear power pack.

“If the current rovers are anything to go by, we’ll end up speaking to this robot for decades and it’ll be traveling halfway around the planet. That would be a great thing,” said Len Ricardo. The launch window begins at 2:02 am AEDT Sunday 27 November.


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