Elachi spent much of his keynote address discussing NASA’s latest success story — the heart-pounding, pitch-perfect Aug. 5 landing of the rover Curiosity on the planet Mars in the Gale Crater.

Elachi described the landing as “seven minutes of terror.” The rover capsule entered the Mars atmosphere travelling at 27,000 miles an hour. Elachi characterized the difficult landing to the equivalence of landing the rover in Seat 10F at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena while the seat moved at a high rate of speed.

The successful landing was watched live by 50 million Americans. The JPL website received 1.8 billion hits within 24-hours of the landing.

Curiosity mission costs are pegged at about $7 per American citizen. The rover is 100 percent ‘Made in the USA,’ Elachi boasted.

“For thousands of years people have looked to the sky and asked about Mars — the little red planet,” Elachi said. “Now we can say our generation put a rover on Mars. This will shape a lot of young people’s inspiration that anything is possible.”

The purpose of the two-year Curiosity mission is to find out if Mars has ever hosted life. Geologically, Mars is very similar to Earth with soil and rock chemistry very similar to the Earth.

Mars is about one-third the size of Earth and had polar ice caps. Like the Earth, Mars has a type of "grand canyon" which is about 10 times wider than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The Mars’ canyon would stretch from the U.S. West to East coasts.

Elachi posed this question - why is Mars so dry today when the Earth has abundant life and ocean water? Evidence on Mars’ surface suggests a history of oceans. The next question was could life have started on Mars and ended?

Elachi said, “The answer in part will be found in the rocks on Mars examined by Curiosity.”

About 13 billion years ago, a Big Bang occurred where particles formed galaxies. Today, billions of galaxies are located across the universe.

Scientists do not fully understand why the Big Bang occurred and remain unsure whether life is common, uncommon, or different across the universe.

Stars continually are born and then die, Elachi says. Eventually our solar system including the sun, its eight planets, and moons will cease to exist.

“Our sun will eventually blow up but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. This will occur in about 3 billion years,” Elachi laughed.

As part of the Curiosity mission, the rover will climb up a mountain consisting of sedimentary rock, most likely deposited in an alluvial environment. Elachi says the rocks are very similar to those found in California’s Central Valley.

cblake@farmpress.com