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On Monday August 6; we return to the dusty red ball 130 million miles from our Sun; and almost 40 million miles away from us. The Mars Science Laboratory has been traveling to the Red Planet for 7 months now, and will try to land the so-called Curiosity rover on the surface; in a significant unmanned mission to determine future suitability for the civilization-defining moment when we one day send man to another planet. Curiosity will study Mars’ geography, climate, and general atmospheric conditions at “sea level” to help ascertain the prospects of a future manned mission; which some say is planned by the year 2030. Additionally – although this is much more than an afterthought on the part of the mission planners – the rover will conduct further studies of whether Mars has ever been inhabited.

Monday’s landing will be monitored in Australia by the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in conjunction with NASA, using giant antennas to eavesdrop on the space-vehicle’s progress. All information will be immediately relayed to NASA headquarters; if anything goes wrong, no one will know for about 7 minutes. Most importantly, since all maneuvers had to be preprogrammed because of the great distance and hence slow response times, there will be little anyone can do about such failures. The tough part will come with the landing, after crashing into the atmosphere at its deep space velocity of over twenty-thousand miles per hour, and using aerodynamics, heat shields and parachutes to decrease this great speed. For the $2.5 billion project, there are many crossed fingers on this one – backed by the collective might of decades of experience and knowledge on the part of the programmers.

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