WHEN a new Mars rover called Curiosity is launched into space next week it will head for a crater on the red planet named after the amateur Sydney astronomer Walter Gale.
But that’s not the only Australian link to this Mars mission. A second curiosity is the very familiar shape of the five-kilometre-high mountain that sits in the middle of Gale crater.
”Its resemblance to a map of Australia is uncanny,” Nick Lomb, a curator of astronomy at Sydney Observatory, said.
Dr Lomb was amazed when he first noticed the similarity in NASA’s most recent images of the crater. ”And the fact it is named after an Australian and looks like Australia seems to be a complete coincidence,” he said.
A NASA spokesman also noted that the crater was named in 1991, years before the shape of the mountain was likely to have been revealed by high resolution images.
Walter Gale, who died in 1945, was a banker and an avid observer of the heavens from Paddington, discovering seven comets.
Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were also favourite objects of study. ”He examined surface features of Mars, being first to note some, and was an ardent supporter of the suggestion of life on the planet,” according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Gale crater, which is about 150 kilometres across, was chosen in July as Curiosity’s landing site after a five-year process in which more than 100 scientists considered about 30 potential locations.
”The site offers a visually dramatic landscape and also great potential for significant science findings,” Jim Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at the time.
Twice as long and five times as heavy as previous Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity is the most advanced mobile robotic laboratory NASA has ever sent to another planet.
It has 10 scientific instruments, including a laser to study targets from a distance, and a 2-metre arm to observe close-up.
After it lands in August 2012, it will study the composition of rocks and soil to assess whether the planet could have supported microbial life. Curiosity will also monitor the weather and radiation levels that might effect a future manned mission.
To celebrate the launch, Sydney Observatory will premiere a new 3D movie about Mars on Friday, which uses images from NASA rovers. Bookings are essential.australian dictionary, map of australia, high resolution images <BR/>