Curiosity Met With Success — Now What?
Friday, August 17th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
The Red Planet may be millions of kilometres away, but as we blogged last week, the world’s got a serious case of Mars fever. Now over a week later, congratulations continue to roll in from around the globe as everyone rushes to acknowledge the captivating achievement of landing a rover on Mars. Of course, rovers have been on Mars before, but Curiosity’s excursion is different — and in high resolution.
NASA has been happy to feed the fever with new images of the Martian landscape that seem to get more spectacular each day, especially as they have gone from close-up dusty black-and-white photos to interactive colour panoramas. All the while, the agency has been in no hurry to get the rover roaming, lest their impatience spark a $2.5 billion misstep.
For now, there will be a series of tests to make sure the different parts of Curiosity’s precious cargo are working well. As controllers put the car-sized rover through its paces, scientists are examining the images to plot a path toward its main target, Mount Sharp, which offers a rich array of geological features. Science, of course, is the point of this project, which has several international stakeholders, Canada being among the largest.
A Canadian Space Agency team, led by Dr. Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph, designed and produced one of the mobile science laboratory’s key instruments — the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (a name befitting a Martian tool).
The APXS will be able to quickly examine geological samples of rock and soil to determine their base compositions. What APXS finds, combined with discoveries from Curiosity’s eight other instruments, could help scientists determine if life ever existed — or might still exist — on Mars.
Then What Happens?
But that’s likely months or years away. Going forward, many are hoping to capitalize on the heightened interest in space and space technology.
A day after the Aug. 6 landing, The Globe and Mail reported that both MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, which was the main contractor in building the APXS, and Teledyne Dalsa, which built advanced image sensors for Curiosity’s hazard-avoidance cameras, were hoping the success of the project would help show off the commercial potential of their space products.
Countries around the world who participated in the project also made their contributions known, even as NASA made bare mention. (President Barack Obama did make sure to mention each of the international partners in his congratulatory call to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mission’s mastermind.)
Meanwhile, pundits in the United States and Russia — the two nations that launched and led the Cold War space race more than 50 years ago — are calling for a revamping of space budget priorities. It’s clear no nation wants to get left behind as countries like China, India and Europe make ready plans of their own for Mars exploration.
Money For Mars
Now, it’s not lost on all space industry followers that while NASA basks in Curiosity’s glow, the agency’s budget for future Mars endeavors was significantly cut in the last budget forecast.
Though if one thing is clear, it’s that the world is unabashed in its Mars curiosity. So, budget problems aside, it seems there could be another case of Mars fever somewhere in our future.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.