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Mars rover flight team sticks to traditions

August 5, 2012 |  3:13 pm



For a group of people who claim that their job requires them to be the opposite of superstitious, there were a lot of traditions flying around Sunday among the engineers who were attempting to deposit the Curiosity rover on Mars.

For years, mission control has been equipped with tubs of peanuts; by now, engineers are so worried that someone will forget, and that the result would be catastrophic, that the room is typically overflowing with peanuts.

FIRST PHOTOS: From Mars Curiosity landing

Mission manager Brian Portock revealed Sunday that one engineer has grown something akin to a hockey “playoff beard,” refusing to shave until the mission is complete.

Another carries around two small trinkets, which she has held on to during  past Mars missions.

Still another creates a new hairstyle for each mission.

The flight team voted on what the style should be for Curiosity and selected a theme of “stars and stripes.” So Bobak Ferdowsi, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, showed up to work Sunday with a red, white and blue mohawk, with stars on the side.

With Curiosity still on a near-perfect course for a Sunday-night landing, scientists said this morning that they had passed up a final opportunity to correct the spacecraft’s trajectory. Curiosity was “very healthy,” said mission manager Brian Portock.

“In cellphone speak, we have a full set of bars,” Portock said. “The flight team is feeling really good about the spacecraft.”

The craft was winging its way toward Mars at more than 8,000 mph and expected to land at 10:31 p.m.

“Tonight’s it -- the Super Bowl of planetary exploration,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “We score and we win--– or we don’t score and we don’t win.

“If we succeed, it will be one of the greatest feats in planetary exploration -- ever,” McCuistion said. “The science at Mars is crucial to key questions in science: Are we alone?”

PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration

The size of a small car, Curiosity is the largest and most advanced machine scientists have ever attempted to send to another planet. The robot is a roving geochemistry laboratory, equipped with a suite of powerful instruments and capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting Martian soil.

If it succeeds, the $2.5-billion mission is expected to revolutionize scientists’ understanding of Mars by scouring an ancient meteor crater and a mountain for the building blocks of life in an effort to determine whether the planet is or was habitable.

The craft is also expected to pave the way for important next steps in deep-space exploration, including sample return and potential human exploration. President Obama has established a goal of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.


Here's the man responsible for messing up the Mars mission

-- Scott Gold

Photo: NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld and Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Charles Elachi speak during a news briefing about NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times