MONTREAL - Canadian scientists are keeping their fingers crossed as NASA's Curiosity — the largest Mars rover ever built — heads for a rendez vous with the red planet this weekend.
Not only is it the biggest vehicle ever sent to Mars, but the rover will gather a wealth of images with its multitude of cameras and will search for signs of past or present life.
It's an event that's expected to be watched closely by millions of people in the U.S., Canada and around the world.
Numerous "Mars landing parties" have also been planned, including in Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal.
Similar in size to a compact car, the spacecraft was launched eight months ago with a Canadian instrument aboard. The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APSX), one of 10 instruments on the Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL), will help hunt for signs of life.
On Monday at 1:31 a.m. ET, many eyes will be focused on NASA's unique sky-crane landing system which will be used to lower the $2.5 billion rover onto the Martian soil.
After it enters the atmosphere, a parachute will slow the spacecraft down and as Curiosity gets within metres of the Martian surface, nylon cables on the landing system will lower it to the ground.
The historic event has put some people in a festive spirit.
Jonathan Moneta, who runs a small Toronto engineering firm, used money from his own pocket to put together a party expected to draw 200 people to a downtown hotel.
He says just the process of landing Curiosity deserves attention.
"Why? Because this is a daring landing," he said.
"It's super-exciting and terrifying."
The University of Guelph's Ralf Gellert is the lead scientist on the Canadian contribution, which cost $17.8 million to develop.
No public events are planned at the Ontario university.
The APSX, an instrument the size of a soupcan, was funded by the Canadian Space Agency and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates was the prime contractor. It works off the end of the rover's robotic arm and will analyze the chemical composition of Martian rocks and soil.
The price of admission to Moneta's party is $5 for kids, while the $25 ticket for adults includes a "Martian cocktail." While the event is supposed to be fun, he cited a more serious motivation.
"We wanted to make sure that the Curiosity rover and the University of Guelph and the team that built it had the attention it deserved," Moneta added.
One of the scientists on the Canadian APSX team is from Western University in London, Ont. The university is opening the doors of the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory Sunday evening for a free get-together.
There will be a live NASA feed of the landing and, weather permitting, telescopes will be pointed at Mars.
University spokesman Keith Marnoch says he's expecting a big turnout.
"The observatory is well known for being able to host events that have to do with astronomy," he said in an interview.
"The last few times, we've had hundreds of people show up to these types of events."
The owner of a recording studio in Winnipeg is also opening his doors to anyone who wants to drop by in the evening, talk about space and watch the Mars landing on a large screen.
"We're going to have Mars-related movies, discussions and popcorn," said Ervin Bartha, the owner of the Clear Light Sound studio.
The 61-year-old recording engineer has been interested in astronomy from a very early age and is a member of Carl Sagan's Planetary Society.
"The moon landing was in 1969 and a lot of people on the planet saw that and now we can actually see an interplanetary space craft landing live," Bartha said.
"That's almost too incredible to understand."
The Canadian Space Agency will also play host to 10 Twitter users at its headquarters near Montreal, while a Mars landing party is planned at the Cosmodome, a space science centre in Laval, north of Montreal.
Olivier-Louis Robert, the Cosmodome's space historian, says the public is invited to drop by for lectures and to watch the landing live on a big screen.
"A local amateur astronomers club is organizing the event and they'll be explaining the different aspects of the mission," he added.
The Canadian Space Agency's Stephane Desjardins points out that it's the second time that Canada is going to have a science instrument working on Mars.
The first was on the Phoenix Mission when Canada provided a meteorological station for the Mars Lander, which operated during the summer of 2008.
"We landed on the north pole of Mars where signs of water had been found and the Phoenix mission confirmed there was actually frozen water underneath the lander," Desjardins noted.
The CSA's director of space exploration projects says Curiosity rover's job is to look for conditions that would support life.
"The objective is to understand the geology, look for signs that Mars could have supported life or still has the conditions to support life," he said in an interview. "The importance at the moment is to see what we can learn from that mission and learn about the history of the planet."
But don't expect an earthling to set foot on Mars any time soon.
Desjardins says a lot of technology still needs to be developed before that can happen.
"The ultimate goal could be the human exploration of Mars, but at the moment we are doing robotic exploration and the next step we would be looking at is to bring back samples," he said.
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