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Australia prepares for Martian first contact

Curiosity's first signals will land down under

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As NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission descends on Mars today, Australia’s facilities in Canberra and the legendary telescopic space mecca, Parkes will be yet again playing a significant role in space exploration history.

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), which the CSIRO manages on NASA's behalf, will be the main tracking station for landing activities. While the CSIRO's regional New South Wales based 64-m Parkes telescope – which broadcast the 1969 moon landing- will record signals directly from the spacecraft as a backup.

The CDSCC’s s 70-m and two 34-m antennas will receive signals from the spacecraft both directly and then relayed through another NASA spacecraft, Mars Odyssey, which is already in orbit around Mars.

The European Space Agency's New Norcia antenna near Perth in Western Australia will also receive signals for added redundancy from Curiosity via its Mars Express satellite also presently orbiting the red planet.

"All of our technology and our people are ready. The expertise of Australian personnel in space communications and CSIRO's partnership with NASA will be showcased during this critical event in the Mars Science Laboratory's mission," said Chief of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, Dr Phil Diamond.

The spacecraft is due to slam into the atmosphere at 20 000 km per hour. During the landing, the payload must be slowed to essentially zero which mission scientists refer to as "seven minutes of terror".

The landing has several stages: cruise, deployment of the entry capsule and then the parachute, separation of the heat shield, and finally the operation of the skycrane that is to lower the 900 kg rover, Curiosity, dubbed the most complex and capable explorer ever sent into space, onto the Martian surface.

The Curiosity is expected to land at 3:30pm (AEST) at Gale Crater – which is named after 19th-century amateur Australian astronomer, Walter Gale- in the southern hemisphere of Mars.

Signals from the Canberra station will be sent directly to mission scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Data from Parkes and New Norcia will be sent later for analysis.

The CDSC is holding an all day Mars landing party which is open to all space enthusiasts on a first-come, best-seats basis. The day will culminate in live TV coverage from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab of the entry, descent and landing of the Curiosity. ®

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