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Ryan Johnson, Published August 06 2012

‘Happy ending to beginning’ of $2.5B Mars rover mission

MOORHEAD – While it was built with valid scientific goals in mind, the premise of the six-wheeled, 2,000-pound Curiosity rover and the engineering feat that landed it on Mars early Monday could strike some as more science fiction than reality.

“We have landed a nuclear-powered truck on another world,” said Juan Cabanela, astronomy professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead. “We definitely live in the future.”

Scientists, space enthusiasts and Americans at large watched eagerly as the rover neared its final destination in the Gale Crater shortly after midnight local time Monday.

The landing maneuver involving a parachute, retro rockets and a sky crane was so complicated, and so new, it was nicknamed the “seven minutes of terror” and prompted talk of how it could go all wrong.

“Planetary science and solar system exploration is sort of fundamentally hard work, but if you look at all the missions to Mars since the ’60s, about half of them have failed,” said Paul Hardersen, associate professor of space studies at the University of North Dakota. “In this case, we were landing the biggest rover ever on Mars – about the size of a small SUV – and it was a new landing technique.”

The landing was simply “a happy ending to the beginning” of the $2.5 billion mission to determine if the Red Planet could have ever supported life, he said.

Dave Weinrich, director of the MSUM Planetarium, said interest in one of the most ambitious missions ever launched by NASA was clear just by looking at Facebook early Monday.

“Probably the first 30 comments were about the Curiosity landing,” he said. “There was nothing else but Curiosity. Of course, all of my friends are geeks, but still it’s really amazing to just see all of the Facebook posts.”

Weinrich said it marks a “milestone” in space exploration, and the cutting-edge instruments onboard the rover will allow it to answer some of humanity’s biggest questions.

“Are we alone? Are there other forms of life in our solar system or have there been?” he said. “It’s certainly an exciting journey.”

Cabanela said the successful landing was crucial for NASA and a turning point for the government agency’s publicity efforts.

“Things like this will always catch the imagination,” he said. “If nothing else, they’ve gotten really good at using social media, because kids are aware of these missions now like they weren’t before.”

Hardersen said the rover landing was definitely on the minds of Red River Valley residents, even if they don’t keep up with the latest astronomy news. About 60 people came to a landing party hosted by UND on Sunday evening that featured presentations on the mission before attendees watched NASA’s live feed of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the landing process began.

It helps that people seem to have a fascination with Mars, he said, an interest that probably owes as much to science fiction as it being the closest and most similar planet to Earth.

Weinrich said the mission could lead to more interest in science, astronomy and related fields, especially among the kids who watched the events unfold from their living rooms or computer screens.

“I remember myself growing up at the time when the first people were being launched into space and it got me interested in science,” he said. “Things like this can really get young people excited about careers in science and technology, which we certainly need.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587