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Stargazing: Lakeview Museum astronomer cheered by Mars rover landing

August 07, 2012 at 08:36 AM

In his years of traveling through the universe at the controls of the equipment inside the earthbound Lakeview Museum planetarium, Sheldon Schafer has traveled to, or at least past, Mars more times than he could accurately count.

That didn’t stop him from staying up past his bedtime Sunday night and Monday morning to watch the drama unfold on Mars and in a NASA control room when a robotic rover the size of a car was successfully, spectacularly, lowered onto the surface of the Red Planet.

Until his Internet connection winked out.

Oh, technology.

“I was watching the ‘seven minutes of terror’ waiting for word on whether the landing was successful, and my Internet froze, probably because of the numbers of people watching,” said Schafer, who is the vice president of education at Lakeview, and teaches astronomy at Bradley University. “When it came back on there was jubilation in the control room.”

The rover, called Curiosity, sped to its destination in a crater on Mars at 13,000 mph and then was slowed in the Martian atmosphere to 1 mph through a complex series of maneuvers that included a parachute and a sky crane.

“NASA had to solve a slew of obstacles and concerns. The atmosphere on Mars was enough to be annoying but not enough to be useful,” Schafer said.

Fifteen minutes later, Schafer was watching the first photographs being taken from the surface of Mars by Curiosity and relayed to Earth by the orbiting Odyssey.

“Here’s a tire on the rover on Mars, here’s the lander against the setting of the sun ... the photos were spectacular,” Schafer said.

Curiosity will roam the planet, hopefully for years, collecting rocks and sending back geological and other scientific date that could determine if there is life on Mars, or if there ever was. Schafer said that NASA scientists and engineers, often maligned for not being able to match the moon-landing glories of the agency’s past, should feel vindicated by the results of the Curiosity landing.

“It shows NASA still has the right stuff,” Schafer said. “It shows the value of keeping the NASA braintrust together, because they can still accomplish things like this.”

Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244, by email at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or on Twitter at @scotthilyard.

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