Johannesburg: A South African scientist working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has compared the Curiosity Mars rover landing to a champion golfer scoring a 10 000km hole-in-one.
Speaking at his alma mater, Stellenbosch University, JPL associate director for project formulation and strategy Japie van Zyl told his audience that touching down on a precise spot on the Red Planet was a very difficult procedure.
“To put it in context, it would be a little bit like asking Ernie Els to tee off here in Cape Town, and hit a golf ball into the cup at St Andrew’s in Scotland,” News 24 quoted van Zyl as saying.
“And to make life more difficult, he doesn’t know what the weather is like in Scotland. And if that isn’t enough... the cup is moving at 100 000km/h,” he added.
The three-ton craft carrying the robot Curiosity rover entered the thin Martian atmosphere last month at a speed of 41 000km/h.
Curiosity touched down in Gale Crater on the surface of Mars on 6 August (SA time). The last stage of its landing saw the rover lowered seven metres on cables by means of a revolutionary “sky crane”.
The dramatic descent was followed by millions around the world at the time, and has been hailed as a triumph of United States technological prowess.
Van Zyl said the six-wheel rover was about the size of a Mini Cooper car, and could negotiate its way over half-metre obstacles.
He pointed out that the aim of the mission was to find signs of past life, which he stressed would be “an enormous discovery”.