Science, Tech & Environment

The Argentine Responsible for a Successful Mars Landing

Miguel San Martin remembers exactly when he decided he wanted to be a space engineer: "It was on a cold Winter's night in 1976, looking up at the sky at my parent's farm while I listened to the BBC on short wave reporting the arrival of the Viking mission to Mars."

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San Martin was 17 at the time and living in his native Argentina. Little did he know then that over two decades later he would be working on NASA's next Mars project: the Pathfinder mission (1997).

The American space agency hired the aeronautics and astronautics expert right after he completed his Master's degree at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Now, after 27 years at NASA, San Martin faces his largest challenge to date, as the Curiosity rover —launched last November- reaches the Red Planet, after a more than 354 million mile voyage.

As the head of Guidance, Navigation and Control at the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Project, San Martin is responsible for Curiosity's safe landing on Mars, on Monday, August 6.

It's no easy feat: Curiosity is not only NASA's most sophisticated rover, carrying 10 of the agency's most advanced scientific instruments.

It's also the largest and the heaviest space vehicle created by the American agency, doubling the size of its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity (launched in 2003).

This means that NASA had to redesign its landing procedure, as the system of inflatable bags used to deposit the previous rovers on the surface of the Red Planet could not withstand Curiosity's approximately 9.8 foot length and almost 1 ton weight.

That's where San Martin's expertise came in. He and his team designed the software that will allow Curiosity to reach Mars in an extremely complex automatic landing procedure that has never been used before.

"Many people think that I'll be controlling Curiosity with a joystick, as though I was playing a video game, but nothing could be further from the truth," said San Martin to BBC Mundo from his home in Los Angeles.

In fact, not only will the landing be completely automatic, San Martin and the rest of his crew won't even be able to follow the event as it unfolds.

Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, there is a 14 minute delay between the neighboring planets.

In addition to the time delay, the NASA team will also have limited feedback to what is going on in space. They won't have a visual. Their only clues will come from coded information sent by nearby satellites and a radio frequency that changes tones when different mechanisms are activated.

At about 5:30 GMT, when Curiosity is expected to reach Mars, the experts will be holding their breaths for seven minutes, as the most difficult part of the mission takes place.

That is the time it will take for the rover to exit its safety capsule attached to a rocket-powered crane that will carry it down to its destination: the Gale Crater, one of the deepest places on Mars.

"We call it the seven minutes of hell," confesses San Martin. "Curiosity will reach Mars's atmosphere at a speed of approximately 13,000 mi/h and seven minutes later it must land safely on the ground."

For that to happen, all 76 mechanisms involved in the landing process must go off without a glitch.
A matter of luck

Curiosity's mission —if it manages to land in one piece- will be to study the crater's rocks, in search of clues that might indicate if life could have occurred on the Red Planet sometime in the past.

Many are hopeful that the $2.5bn project might answer a question that has haunted scientists for centuries: Is the Earth the only place that could harbor life?

It's an enigma that San Martin has wanted to solve ever since he was a boy.

However, the NASA veteran warns that the success of the Curiosity mission might ultimately depend on luck.

"We try our best to pick the right spot to carry out our investigations but finding places where life could have occurred based on the limited information we have is more an art than a science," points out the Argentine space engineer.

Assuring Curiosity's safe landing on Mars will also be partly left to chance.

"We've calculated all the known risks, things that we know that we can't control, like the wind factor," said San Martin. "But what keeps me up at night are the unknown unknowns: those unpredictable things that could ruin the mission."

Despite the warning, San Martin is optimistic everything will go as planned. As a sign of confidence, he's even picked the L.A. bar where he and his team will celebrate all night once Curiosity is firmly placed on red land.

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    NASA's Rover "Curiosity" which is scheduled to land on Mars Sunday Night. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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    Mars Science Laboratory Project Chief Engineer Miguel San Martín. (Photo: BBC)

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    Mars Science Laboratory Project Chief Engineer Miguel San Martín. (Photo: BBC)