Archive for the ‘NASA missions’ Category


Hell yes–wheels down on Mars again!

August 6, 2012

We all stayed up last night to watch Curiosity land on Mars. It was amazing, to be watching the live feed from Mission Control at JPL, hearing the live telemetry being relayed, and then just moments after touchdown get to see the first photo sent back by the rover (it’s grainy and blurry because the transparent lens cap is still on the camera to protect it from the dust kicked up by the landing).

As John Holdren, President Obama’s assistant for science and technology, said, “there’s a one ton automobile-sized piece of American ingenuity and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”

I was particularly engaged because I had gotten to see parts of the actual spacecraft, including the aeroshell and rocket skycrane, during a tour of JPL two and a half years ago. Strange and amazing to know that the same machinery I saw in the big white room at JPL is now on Mars.

During the landing, data were relayed  back by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been in orbit around Mars for 10 years, 9 months, and 13 days. This decade-old craft was never designed to function as a data relay, but, you know, engineers are smart. Curiosity joins the rover Opportunity, which is still going strong 3116 days into its 92.5-day mission.

Turns out, we weren’t the only ones watching the landing. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter got a photo of Curiosity on the way down, using its HiRISE camera.

This is the second time MRO has caught a Mars lander on the way down; it got a photo of Phoenix descending under its parachute back in 2008.

Happily, today’s xkcd explains why I’m blogging about space on a Monday morning:

Or, as my buddy Jarrod put it on Facebook, “We just landed a one-ton NUCLEAR ROBOT on another planet with a SUPERSONIC PARACHUTE and a FRICKIN’ ROCKET SKYCRANE.”

Good times.


Curiosity arrives at Mars this weekend!

August 2, 2012

Our newest and largest Mars rover, Curiosity, will arrive at Mars Sunday night or Monday morning, depending on your time zone (image from Wikipedia). I say “will arrive at Mars” because we won’t know if it landed safely or just hit Mars until 7 minutes after the fact. As you can see from this nifty calculator, the distance between Earth and Mars is currently 152 million miles and growing. The landing is scheduled to occur at 10:31 PM, PDT, on August 5, or 1:31 AM EDT, or 5:31 AM UT/GMT.

This video about the landing explains something of the difficulty and complexity of landing a BIG rover on Mars, and some (but not all) of the justification for going with the never-before-attempted skycrane landing method.

Fingers firmly crossed!


JPL tour

April 4, 2010

All right, I doubt if I fooled anyone with the last post, but I had to try right? This is a lab at JPL, and those are duplicate Mars rovers, but it’s not no secret what they’re up to. This is a shot of the famous “sandbox” where maneuvers planned for Spirit and Opportunity are tested here on Earth before they are attempted on Mars. I took this picture from the viewing gallery, which is open to everyone who takes a tour. My tour was back on January 8 of this year, and I’m finally getting around to blogging about it only three months late.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was started up by some Caltech grad students back in the 1930s, as a place to test the jet engines they were building for their thesis work. At the time, jet propulsion was the most cutting-edge technology on the planet. I wonder how many of those interwar engineers imagined that their country would have bootprints on the moon in three decades, and probes flying past the outer planets in four?

Anyway, in the 1950s the folks at JPL teamed up with Werner von Braun to build and then orbit the first US satellite, Explorer 1, which discovered Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts. When NASA was founded in 1958, JPL became the center of US efforts to explore the solar system with robot probes, and it continues in that role to this day. The various moon and Mars mappers, Mariners and Pioneers and Voyagers and Vikings, orbiters and atmospheric probes and landers, and rendezvousers with comets and asteroids–in short, just about everything awesome that NASA has done outside of the manned space program and a few of the space telescopes–were all born at and controlled from JPL. A surprising number are still working, including some that have been out there almost as long as I’ve been alive.

JPL has an annual open house each May, and school groups can arrange tours at other times. Vicki and London and I got to go in January because someone I met doing sidewalk astronomy last fall was organizing a school trip and had some extra slots. It was quite an honor to get to go along, and just stupendously cool.

The coolest part was seeing the stuff that’s still being built. Right now, this is mostly the Mars Science Lab, set to depart for the red planet in a year and a half, and its supporting spacecraft. Here a couple of engineers work on the robotic arm for the MSL–not the actual arm or the actual rover, but an exact duplicate. They’re working out the programming bugs on the clone before they put the program in the real one.

Here’s London with a mockup of MSL. It’s big, beautiful, and kinda freaky. The gearhead in me says, “That is one sweet robot!” The Cro-Magnon says, “That is one unnervingly big robot”, and is happy not to have to see it trundling around on its own.

Here is the giant cleanroom, the size of a high school gymnasium, where the MSL mission stuff is being built and stored. That big silver dish in the corner is the MSL aeroshell, which will decelerate the crane and rover in Mars’ thin atmosphere. This is not a mockup or a duplicate; in about two and a half years, that actual thing in the corner will actually be crashing through the Martian atmosphere at several thousand miles per hour.

Here are more bits of the gumdrop-shaped probe that will carry MSL to Mars. I think the flying-saucer shaped thing in the foreground is the parachute carrier,  but I could be wrong.

And here’s the crane that will hover on its rocket engines while it lowers the MSL rover to the surface. Sounds crazy, I know, but apparently they did exhaustive design studies and this is the best way to get a rover the size of a car down to the surface. MSL is big, and the bouncy balloon thing that worked so well for Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity ain’t gonna cut it this time around (see a cool comparison shot of the three types of rover here; also, how cool is it that we’re on our third generation Mars rover?).

The back wall of the cleanroom is tiled with giant versions of the patches from the various JPL missions, from the early Surveyors and Rangers to Cassini, the current Mars rovers, and New Horizons. I don’t know if that gives the people who work there some anxiety of influence, or more of a “Hell yeah, we’re awesome!” feeling, but I definitely leaned toward the latter.

Our tour ended in a viewing gallery overlooking Mission Control, where busy people keep track of flybys, orbiters, landers, and rovers, from MESSENGER heading for orbital insertion around Mercury, to New Horizons streaking toward its 2015 Pluto flyby, to the Voyager probes approaching the heliopause, far beyond the orbits of the gas giants.

I wish the lighting would have been brighter so I could have gotten a crisper shot; this was my favorite thing in the whole tour. This one screen in Mission Control has data scrolling in, in real time, from many of the active probes (not all of them; MESSENGER, for example, was not up on the boards when I was there). I got to watch data coming in from the Voyager probes, which were launched when I was two years old. How cool is that?

UPDATE, two and a half years later: Curiosity landed safely on Mars last night, so some of the hardware in the photos above is there on Mars, working. Oh, and Spirit has given up the ghost, but Opportunity is still going strong, 3116 days into its 92.5-day mission.


Mars landings faked!

April 1, 2010

Here’s a picture of the shadowy government “lab” where all of the images from the supposed Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are invented by Hollywood special effects artists under the direction of unscrupulous government “scientists”. As this remarkable image clearly shows, each rover has only a small sandbox to roll around in. The rest of each faked image is created by the holographic projector standing on the yellow tripod in the middle of the room. The technology used to bilk the unsuspecting public out of  billions of dollars has come a long way since the moon landing hoax!

How much longer are we going to let the incompetent liars at NASA keep taking our tax dollars to support this transparent fraud!!?? Just Say No to the Fake Space Show! Contact your senator or representative today!

(For those without much sense, or a sense of humor: this is a joke, obviously!)


Get your Mars on

November 6, 2009

Victoria crater small

The Boston Globe’s The Big Picture feature covers Mars today, thanks to the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. See craters, dunes, water-eroded gullies, dust devils, and the tracks of our rovers, courtesy of what is still the coolest non-Hubble camera in existence.


Fly, baby, fly!

October 28, 2009

397587main_launch 3-m_1024-768

The Ares 1-X flew, successfully. Pix and video here.

I’m extremely troubled that after pouring literally hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial bailout last year and more hundreds of billions into the stimulus package this year, some idiots still talk about how much money we’re wasting on manned spaceflight. Here’s the answer: 3-4 billion a year. Not 34, 3 to 4. With projected increases to 7 or 8 to get the Constellation program up and running.

Is 3 or 4 billion dollars a lot of money? Well, it sounds like a lot. But this is a country that spends a billion a year on chewing gum. That is coldly contemplating bailing out GMAC to the tune of 3 to 5 billion–for the third time in a year. You know what you can buy with the manned space program budget? Two stealth bombers.

So no. Just no. Manned spaceflight done the NASA way is probably a lot more expensive than it has to be. But compared to the budgets of, well, anything, on a national scale, it’s a pittance. And even that pittance has been steadily eroded by the last three administrations.

I’m not 100% on board with the Constellation program. I fear that it will keep thousands of former shuttle program people  employed at the expense of not getting us beyond low Earth orbit for another three decades. I think the competing DIRECT proposal has a lot going for it. But for now, today, Ares 1-X is what we got. And whether I agree with everything they’re doing or not, NASA needed a win.

And it got one.



Observing Report: LCROSS impact watch

October 13, 2009

Well, as you may have heard, the LCROSS impacts were successful in that both the Centaur upper stage and the LCROSS probe itself both hit the crater Cabeus at crazy high velocity. No one knows yet whether they were successful at detecting water–it will take some time to pore over the data from the mission to figure that out. And visually they were a complete dud. No flash, no mini-mushroom cloud, no plume of debris extending up into space.

For me, the impact watch was anticlimactic, but in the best sense; given how much fun I had last Thursday night, the impact probably would have been an anticlimax even if we had seen a debris plume.

For one thing, we were in a dark spot. I live about a mile from the eastern edge of LA county, which means that I am out of the worst of the LA light dome but still in a metropolitan area. The light pollution is not impossible but it’s easy to show people the constellations because usually the dark stars are the only ones showing. I’ve never seen the Milky Way from my driveway, and I doubt I ever will (barring a massive blackout, which I secretly wouldn’t mind so much).

Fortunately it’s easy to get to better skies. There are mountains to the north and east and deserts across the mountains, and you can get to really seriously dark skies in an hour or two. Acceptably dark skies are even closer–we went up Mount Baldy, which is the closest big peak and only about 20 miles from the house. With a little elevation to put us above the smog and a nice ring of mountains to block out most of the local light pollution, the sky is amazing. We still had the big LA light dome off to the southwest, but that really only knocked out about an eighth of the sky for serious observing, and the rest was just grand. The Milky Way was obvious, and I spotted the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye for the first time in my life.

We also had just the right equipment. My friend brought along his 16-inch dob. Now, you know that I am a small scope afficionado, but even I got aperture fever around that thing. Tough objects looked good and average objects looked amazing. I have heard people claim that M11, the Wild Duck cluster, is their favorite deep sky object, but I never understood why–until now. It’s a cliche to describe a nice cluster as looking like a handful of diamonds scattered on black velvet. In the 16-inch dob, M11 looked like an armored car full of diamonds blew up over an oil spill. We had a look at the Cat’s Eye Nebula, and while it didn’t look as good as it did in the 60-inch at Mt. Wilson, it still looked awfully nice.  The spiral structure was obvious, it was a gorgeous flourescent green, and the central star was blazing.

I also took along my 15×70 binoculars. These are fairly recent acquisition. I had lusted after a pair for more than a year after seeing the excellent reviews on Amazon, and my night of binocular stargazing in Utah finally pushed me over the edge. I’m thrilled with them–the 70mm objectives each grab as much light as a small telescope, and they’re just so darn trivial to use. If I’m having company over I usually mount them so I can give people a rock-steady view, but on my own I free-hand them as often as not. They’re quite a bit heavier than my 10x50s, but the extra weight is more than worth it. The other night I laid out on the hood of the car and did a head-to-head comparison, and I think my 10x50s are going to be pretty lonely from now on. The 15x70s hit the sweet spot between magnification and field of view–I can see things well enough to feel that I’m really experiencing them and not just noting them, but the FOV is expansive enough that it easy to find my way around the sky. So far, they are my favorite tool for finding objects and just generally learning the sky.

And that’s just here in town. Out on the mountain, the 15x70s were spectacular. I saw the Double Cluster better than I ever have in any instrument, ever. Andromeda was awesome. I was sweeping up globular clusters left and right. I even bagged the Triangulum galaxy, which I’d never found before; it is a huge object with a very low surface brightness, so ideally you want dark skies (check) and an instrument with a wide enough FOV to separate it out from the background sky (double check).

Now, it may seem crazy that I am gushing about a 16-inch dob one minute and a pair of binoculars the next. But they’re for different and complementary modes of stargazing. The big scope will show incredible detail on objects–globular clusters like M22 showed so many stars that I felt like I needed to look several times to see them all. But it’s still a telescope; you don’t just pick it up and scan the sky until you find something interesting. Binoculars will let you do just that. I probably observed about three dozen different celestial objects with the binoculars the other night. With my sky atlas spread out on the hood of the truck, a red flashlight*, and the 15x70s, I could look ’em up, hunt ’em down, and take ’em in not much longer than it takes to write. On the flip side, most of those three dozen things, pretty as they were, were still just fuzzy blobs in the binoculars. It takes the light-gathering and magnifying abilities of a telescope to really bring out the best in most objects–hence the dob. If you ask me (or lots of other folks), that’s the yin and yang of optimal observing: binoculars for widefield scanning and locating objects, and a telescope for drinking in the details. Not on separate nights but at the same time, going back and forth to whichever tool best suits the job or your mood.

* For preserving night vision. You can buy custom jobs, but the traditional method is to get a compact flashlight (I have a mini-Maglite) and paint over the window with red nail polish. Cheap, easy, durable, reversible.

We got done setting up about 8:30 and observed pretty hard for about four hours. In the early morning we slowed down, spent more time jawing, and even hopped in the cab of the truck for a couple of hours to stay warm. Back out at 4:00 AM  to get set for the 4:31 impact, and we kept on observing until about 5:00 before packing it all up and coming home. As observing runs go, it was my own Apollo 13–I got everything I wanted except the moon.

I’m a week and a half away from being done with teaching for the fall. That means more nights on the mountain, and more regular updates here. Stay tuned!