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Nov
9

Touring the Facility

Touring the Facility

Written By: Ben Lachman – PR and Marketing Assistant

After the briefing was over, we were taken on highly anticipated tour of JPL, nerd Mecca.

The first stop on the tour was to take a look at a life-sized rover replica. Curiosity is about the size of a Mini Cooper, but until you see the replica in front of you, you cannot grasp the actual scale and the numerous items used to collect data. We were lucky to have Randii Wessen, Deputy Manager of the Project Formulation Office at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on the tour.  He pointed out the 17 cameras (the cameras on the Curiosity rover are the mission scientists’ “eyes” on Mars) onboard the rover and the other scientific tools. One of the fun items that I liked was a laser that vaporizes rock to analyze the composition.

Curiosity stands about 7ft tall with the mast camera (Mastcam for short) is up and her resemblance to the cartoon character WALL-E is popular within JPL’s social media team. The NASA Social team made it clear that they have personified Curiosity as a witty, large-and-in-charge, female rover. Curiosity has her own twitter handle: @MARSCuriosity, and it is fun to follow her.

The next stop on the tour was the Space Flight Operation Facility.  This is a control room and all the related equipment needed to communicate with deep spacecraft. A giant digital reader board has a list of how long it takes to reach all the interstellar spacecraft (a theoretical spacecraft designed for traveling between stars) and the time was measured in light hours.   They explained that it takes around 35 hours for communications to make a return trip when sent to Voyager 1, which is currently the farthest spacecraft from our planet. All communications from exploration missions go through that room, earning it the nickname ‘The Center of the Universe.’

After seeing Space Flight Operations, we visited the Ground Operations room which looked like a college computer lab. Instead of the fancy lighting and a large futuristic interior, The Ground Operations lab had white boards, low ceilings and florescent lighting.  Ground Operations is where the team will plan out and program Curiosity’s movements on Mars. The team operating Curiosity will work on “Mars Time” so they can work during the Mars day which is called a sol. The Martian sol extends 40 min later each Earth day.

The next facility we visited was the test bed for Curiosity’s twin.  This unnamed full scale-working model was exactly like Curiosity except for one piece, this rover has the plutonium power pack instead of the power pack.   She was asleep when we visited her, but they showed us the items they used to test her cameras. One item that stood out was a rubber chicken that she had to locate during testing.

The tours continued with a short bus trip up to the Mars Yard, where they had a stripped down life-sized rover that weighted the same as it would on Mars.   That is where we met Matt Heverly, ( @Matt_Heverly) an Oregonian that has the tough job of driving Curiosity.   Haverly explained that Curiosity’s suspension is better than any car in production today; all the wheels are independent which makes it easier to clear a rock that is about the size of a coffee table.   He then showed us and drove live-size model it over a giant rock. The wheels are machined from one block of aluminum, and the wheels also have cleats to help them to scale up rock.  It continued to surprise me as I learned that the decoy was controlled by an application that a summer intern had programmed. Overall it is a very impressed project!

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EDL: Seven Minutes of Terror – A “tweeps” view while Curiosity was landing

Written By: Ben Lachman – PR and Marketing Assistant

Curiosity and her mission objectives are phenomenal; however the most suspenseful part was the MSL entry, descent and landing (EDL) which was a very complex process. The challenge of landing a 1,080 lb rover with approximately 4,000 lbs of landing apparatuses in a 15-mile X 14-mile ellipse, 350 million miles away from Earth took years of planning.  A 14 minute round trip communication delay forced the scientists to pre-program the entire procedure. By the time word reached the command center that Curiosity had entered the Mars’ atmosphere, Curiosity would actually be on the ground. The landing was fully automated.

To be successful many processes had to work seamlessly; the parachute had to deploy to slow the craft down, the heat shield would have to detach for the radar to scan the ground, the rocket pack would have to detach from the shell and the parachute and perform an evasive maneuver to avoid a collision. After all of the above processes took place, the rocket pack would hover over the Martian surface while it lowered Curiosity to the ground.  The complexity of this landing was unprecedented, and because the conditions on Mars and Earth are so different, all the systems were tested numerous times in different environments, but never together.

Earlier that day, I had overheard two engineers chatting about a controversy having to do with the parachute. The parachute wasn’t like any that I could imagine, at fifty-one feet, it was the largest supersonic parachute ever constructed. When testing the design, it fluttered like a jellyfish with the bow shock, which was not ideal. Dr. Anita Sengupta, EDL and advanced technology engineer, showed a video of tests and computer models, it became clear why the engineers were concerned; but Dr. Sengupta sounded confident in her research.

Adam Steltzner, EDL Phase Lead, was responsible to declare if Curiosity had touched down.  He emphasized that rationally the plan was sound, but if you looked at it, it was crazy. He explained all the things that could go wrong, and how they planned for, but he said that there might be an unexpected issue. Throughout the discussion they were managing our expectations. It’s going be an amazing event if it lands, but if it doesn’t  there was nothing to worry about they would figure out what went wrong and do it better the next time. Dr. Steltzner said that he would wait for three conditions to verify that Curiosity safely touched down: First, he would wait for an electronic ‘postcard’ that would tell him the final velocity, second, he would wait for Curiosity to send a signal that it wasn’t moving so he would know that it wasn’t sliding down a hill, and lastly he would wait for a steady telemetry signal. After all those conditions were met, he would declare touchdown.

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Why Gale Crater? – “Tweeps” Find Out Reasoning Behind the Geography for the Landing Site

By: Ben Lachman – PR and Marketing Assistant

Dave Lavery, who I felt held the coolest title as the Program Executive for Solar System Exploration at NASA Headquarters, explained a neat fact about this mission: Curiosity was the first astrobiology mission since the Viking Missions in 1979. Curiosity isn’t just looking for signs of water, but was sent to find out if at one time the planet was inhabitable or “fit to live in”.

It was decided that to get the best understanding of Mars, “Curiosity” should land in the Gale Crater.  There are many reasons that JPL chose Gale Crater for her landing site;  mainly of which is geology. The Gale Crater is like a layered cake made of minerals and some of these minerals only form in the presence of water, which could help prove the presence of water on Mars. Curiosity will also ‘sniff’ the air and detect the levels of methane and other chemical compounds in the atmosphere.

Time on Mars is easily divided into days based on its rotation rate and years based on its orbit. Sols (Martian solar days) are only 37 minutes and 22 seconds longer than Earth days, and there are 668 sols (684 Earth days) in a Martian year. During the Martian summer methane breaks down rapidly under UV light, which means it is coming from somewhere and that could be living life. More background information – The atmosphere of Mars is relatively thin and is composed mostly of carbon dioxide (95.32%). There has been interest in studying its composition since the detection of trace amounts of methane, which may indicate the presence of life on Mars, but may also be produced by a geochemical process, volcanic or hydrothermal activity. A reason to look deeper!

 

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How The Mars Scientific Laboratory Got Her Name – “Tweeps” continues their journey to Mars, CA and back again.

By Ben Lachman – PR and Marketing Assistant

On the first day, after a short meet and greet with the other ‘tweeps’, Lori Garver, the Deputy Administrator of NASA, greeted us and started the briefing. Her message was about the importance of the space program and she spoke about the technology that has been used and designed to meet the challenges that NASA faces.  She communicated the biggest challenge that NASA faces was a shortage in qualified students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at the high school level. To help solve this issue NASA started an Outreach Program to help get students interested and involved. One of the outreach projects was a naming contest for the Mars Scientific Laboratory.

Clara Ma was 11 years old when she submitted her essay for the contest to name the MSL Rover. Out of the 9,000 student entries she received the honor of naming the rover ‘Curiosity’. Since winning the contest in 2009, she has been part of the MSL mission; visiting the Rover in the clean room, being present for the launch, and she was at JPL to see it land. She has become sort of a celebrity at JPL and it was obvious that winning the essay contest has influenced her life in a major way.

 
Read her essay here: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/namerover/

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NASASocial Explained – How Social Media “Tweeps” made it to JPL Labs to see the Mars Landing

By Ben Lachman – PR and Marketing Assistant

The NASASocial program is a program in which NASA hosts citizen journalists at events. It started in 2009, when NASA held its first ‘Tweetup’ on the social media outlet called, Twitter. It was originally for citizen journalists that were active on Twitter called ‘Tweeps’. The program has been very successful; bringing thousands of people into an online conversation about our national space program.

The process started with an application that was sent to NASA. Out of 2,500 applicants I was selected, along with 24 other ‘Tweeps’, to watch the Mars Scientific Laboratory (MSL) NASA Social (in layman’s terms, social media people watching and tweeting about all we experienced/witnessed when the rover ‘Curiosity’ landed on Mars). This event was held in Pasadena, CA at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) over three days period, August 3rd through the 6th. Attendees were diverse in age, careers and geographic locations; however, the one thing we all had in common was an interest in science and social media.

Over the next few days we will post a blog about my experience attending the NASA Social. If you are interested in the program and want to apply please see the information below. It was a great experience, as you will find out. For more information:

http://www.nasa.gov/connect/social/index.html
twitter.com/NASASocial
facebook.com/NASASocial

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