Nov 9, 2012

Evergreen Museum

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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