Blast-Off to Mars!

  • © A.Piechta

  • © A. Piechta

  • © A. Piechta

Blast-Off to Mars!

By Amy Laughinghouse

EXPLORE THE RED PLANET BY WAY OF TOULOUSE IN A NEW EXHIBIT AT THE CITE DE L'ESPACE THEME PARK

When the rover Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars in the wee hours of August 6, 2012, it wasn’t just a triumph for the Americans at NASA. It also represented a huge achievement for the French engineers who designed two of the celebrated spacecraft’s ten experiments, which aimed to assess Mars’ ability to sustain life, past or present.

A key piece of equipment—a laser camera that determines the composition of soil and rocks—was developed by a laboratory in Toulouse, the hub of the European aerospace industry. More than 40,000 people work there in the space or civil aviation fields, and 15,000 are employed in research and development labs. To celebrate these scientists’ contribution to creating—and satiating—Curiosity, Cité de l’Espace, a “Space City” theme park on the outskirts of Toulouse, has launched an “Explore Mars” exhibit, which will be featured through July 3, 2013.

Visitors to Cité de l’Espace can get a gander at life-sized replicas of three NASA rovers—Sojourner, Opportunity, and Curiosity—displayed in a “Martian” setting. With the help of a guide, you can even move and control Curiosity, orienting the wheels and activating the camera and robotic arms.

Experience how much lighter the pull of gravity is on Mars with the “Astrojump” simulator, which allows you to “lose” two-thirds of your body-weight…at least temporarily. Wee would-be space explorers can perform experiments to see how soap bubbles would behave in a Martian atmosphere, “excavate” a Martian-like surface, and sift through sand varieties to see which is closest to that of the red planet. Meanwhile, screens display the latest news reports of Curiosity’s discoveries and track its path via audiovisual animation.

The 12-acre site also encompasses a six-story 3D IMAX theater, a planetarium, and a stellarium that offers shows especially for little ones. At the “Children’s Base,” kids can try on a spacesuit and experience what it’s like to sleep standing up…and bicycle upside-down. Bold souls can strap themselves into a rotating “Gyro Xtreme” machine (provided you didn’t eat a big breakfast), which was designed to test astronauts’ balance. 

At the center of the park, which receives 300,000 visitors a year, three full-size spacecraft occupy “Infinity Alley.” Crane your neck to take in a 174-foot high replica of the Ariane 5 rocket, and board a Soyuz spacecraft and a replica of the Mir Space Station to get a feel for the living conditions of Russian cosmonauts.Once a year, Cité de l’Espace also hosts a special evening where the public can meet with researchers, who present and explain various experiments. “One of our goals is to be a showcase for the space community, who help us conceive our exhibits and films,” explains general manager Jean Baptiste Desbois. “We try to promote the knowledge of space and astronomy through ‘edu’tainment—that is to say, education through entertainment.”

ADDRESSES

Cité de l’Espace

Avenue Jean Gonord

31506 Toulouse Cedex 5

+33 (0)820 377 223

cite-espace.com