Celebrating Curiosity

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Celebrating Curiosity

A party at the Hotel Ocho watched on as NASA landed Curiosity, its new rover, on the surface of Mars.

Above the din of celebration in the seconds following the NASA rover Curiosity’s descent onto the surface of Mars early Monday morning, there was the sound of an exultant, unidentifiable voice. It clarified any confusion about how successful the mission had been, while framing the event in a topical metaphor:

“If this were gymnastics,” the voice said, “it would have stuck the landing!”

All of this happened at the Hotel Ocho, where local space enthusiasts anxiously awaited the enthralling moment among a jam-packed crowed. Curiosity’s way of landing on the planetary surface was famously complicated, so success was anything but a foregone conclusion.

Amidst kitschy decorations that featured an abundance of inflatable planets, cardboard stars, and a cut-out astronaut that attendees could put their faces in for photos, revelers at the Ocho were treated to a number of attractions, including three themed cocktails that were named for the three existing Mars rovers.

There was a simulator that allowed people to have an attempt at navigating the rover’s safe touchdown, an achievement that frequently drew cheers. There was also a live feed from NASA headquarters in California, where speakers included Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and, somewhat inexplicably, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Several local guests took to the microphone at the Ocho.

Randy Atwood, Editor of Space Quarterly, detailed the history of Mars exploration, from its primitive beginnings to the sophistication of this newest rover. Still in their late teens, local students Asad Muhammad and Matthew Ho discussed how they sent a LEGO man into space, complete with impressive video evidence of the accomplishment. Also on hand were several members of the York University Rover Team and a rover they had designed, which attendees were able to control using an Xbox controller.

Of course, the York rover was hardly in the same league as Curiosity. Carrying over ten times the mass of scientific instruments as either of the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, it is no mystery why the mission was dubbed Mars Science Laboratory. Canadians can take pride in the fact that we have contributed to the breakthrough. Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph developed the APXS (Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer) that will be used to determine elemental chemistry of the planet.

As the clock ticked down toward the projected landing time, at approximately 1:30 a.m. EST, the guests—a few wearing Star Wars shirts and a couple dressed as Klingons—began to feel the excitement building. At one point, the crowd was subjected to the surreal sight of Bill Nye and those assembled in California viewing the Toronto celebration live via satellite. There were few murmurs of doubt or skepticism regarding the outcome, but a lot of concerned discussion regarding the precision required in completing the operation.

When the time finally arrived, the crowd had nothing to do but study a live stream of the NASA team in Washington D.C., arranged in rows behind computer terminals, just like in Apollo 13. As they all erupted in cheers, shaking hands and embracing in well-earned hugs, it became clear that the Curiosity team’s achievement was painstaking, and that its results may be invaluable. Two and a half billion dollars and nearly a decade were spent to ensure that nothing went wrong and, lo and behold, it had all gone off without a hitch.

Soon, we were looking at images from the surface of the red planet, as Curiosity regarded its own large shadow.

Photo by Kevin Scott/Torontoist.

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