Two weeks ago, the 900kg nuclear-powered Curiosity rover was hoisted into the sky and sent on its year-long journey to Mars, where it will explore the planet’s surface and try to determine whether Mars is, or ever has been, capable of hosting life. The Atlas V rocket flew flawlessly in a textbook launch, and the departing spacecraft was even visible to amateur astronomers in East Asia and Australia.
But did you know that the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) played a vital role in the launch? Approximately one hour after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Curiosity separated from the Atlas V rocket, in the second-riskiest part of the entire mission (The most dangerous? Entering the Martian atmosphere and landing. 60% of all missions to Mars have failed, usually at around that point). This happened as the spacecraft passed over South Africa, and SANSA’s Telemetry, Tracking and Communications team was given the vital task of monitoring the manoeuvre to ensure that it was successful. The spacecraft was located over the horizon using Sansa’s S-Band antenna. The event was captured with a radio telescope and the live video images were sent back to NASA headquarters. The facility, located next to the HartRAO radio astronomy observatory at Hartebeesthoek, 40 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg, tracked the space vehicle for five minutes.