Those at the controls at CSIRO’s Tidbinbilla tracking station outside Canberra will be the eyes and ears of the mission in the vital minutes when Curiosity lands on the dusty surface to begin its 23-month mission on August 6.
The tracking station, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, will be one of three around the globe monitoring the mission.
”But at the time of landing we have an exclusive view because Mars will be in our field of view at that time,” said Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex spokesman Glen Nagle.
Mr Nagle describes the 107 staff at the observatory as ”the air traffic controllers of space”. Few landings, however, have generated such anticipation.
Tidbinbilla will receive the rover’s first signals before relaying the data to mission control in America and will have sole responsibility for communications during the landing.
Entry into the atmosphere, descent and landing will take seven minutes – with touchdown due at 3.31 pm on Monday August 6, Melbourne time.
The target landing site is Gale Crater, a 150 kilometre-wide crater named after Australian amateur astronomer Walter Gale who discovered seven comets and was also a keen observer of Mars and Jupiter.
Monash University researcher Marion Anderson, who has been part of the project since 2002, helped select the landing site.
Chosen for its scientific and practical features, the area is located on the boundary of the planet’s north planes.
”It’s free of large boulders and sand dunes, which could bog the rover,” she said.
The area is of scientific interest because there is evidence it would once have been wet. And the rocks that contain clay could have preserved evidence of life that once called the red planet home.
A geologist, Ms Anderson said the rover was able to drill in to the rock to a depth of 10 centimetres to obtain samples.
But none of the samples will be returned to Earth. Curiosity is a mobile science laboratory on a one-way mission to Mars. The most sophisticated rover to date, the 900 kilogram machine will be scooping up soil and drilling through rock to collect samples and test them on-site before sending the data back to Earth via satellite.
About the size of a Kombi van, the rover will also act as a weather station taking atmospheric measurements, as well as recording wind and temperature data. Images of the red planet will also be sent back.
And while the Tidbinbilla Tracking Station staff will be first to receive the data, they won’t know until it has been analysed by mission scientists whether it’s been a success or not.
”We really want to make a bunch of anxious mission scientists happy,” Mr Nagle said. ”We’ll be watching the monitor of the mission control centre for the scientists’ reaction.
”If they’re all jumping up and down and smiling then we know it’s good information we’ve sent to them. We call that monitor the glee-meter.”