Interview: Norm Thagard November 19, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Mars, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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While we were in Florida for the last journey of space shuttle Atlantis, we met up with some astronauts. This experience reminded us of our happenstance interviews of two years earlier, which you can find at “A Year of Lofty Interviews.” Two weeks ago, we posted our follow-up interview with Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke. Today, we share our conversation with shuttle astronaut Norm Thagard.
Thagard flew on four shuttle missions between 1983 and 1995 and spent 115 days on Mir in 1995, for which he crammed to know enough Russian to do his job. According to NASA, Thagard reflected on his Mir experience by saying, “If anyone in 1969 had ever told me that I would wind up having a Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian force as a commander, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’” A transcript of his oral history, done by NASA after his retirement, can be found HERE. But first watch our video interview with Thagard to hear whether he thinks we stopped flying the shuttle too soon and whether he thinks we should go to Mars.
Sputnik, NASA, and Generation Space October 3, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Mars, Space Shuttle
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On Friday, October 4, 1957, a gleaming aluminum sphere, roughly the size of beach ball, weighing 184 pounds and studded with four whip-like antennae, was lofted into orbit around Earth. Sputnik changed the world in both large and small ways.
That same weekend in Doug’s grandparent’s house, a litter of kittens was born. The firstborn, a tiny black-and-white female, was named Sputnika after the Russian artificial satellite that had grabbed so much of the world’s attention. A little over 1800 miles away—a distance three times greater than the most distant point in Sputnik’s elliptical orbit—in Pasadena, California, a young girl who’d grow up to be a colleague of ours, would go out into the San Rafael hills and try to catch a nighttime glimpse of Sputnik as it passed overhead. Our parents were young adults then, just coming of age in this changing world. When Anna’s sister came home from kindergarten fifteen years later, having made a holiday ornament from a Styrofoam ball, a few toothpicks, and silver spray paint, Anna’s mother declared, “You made Sputnik.”
Our colleague wasn’t the only American looking up into the night sky. All over the United States, people were straining to catch a glimpse of the Russian achievement that blazed and glittered through the heavens. Some, mostly children and young adults, watched the satellite’s trail in awe. Parents, teachers, and leaders, had an altogether different reaction, fear.
The effect of that fear was writ large across America. Seemingly overnight, K-12 classrooms refocused their curricula to produce future engineers and scientists. Government agencies were realigned. NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, itself founded as a crisis-induced preparation for World War I, was dissolved and reformed as NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on October 1, 1958. So, this week marks two anniversaries that define the beginning of the Space Age: the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, and the formation of NASA, the space agency that would put a human being on the Moon.
Over the next four decades, the space race ignited by Sputnik’s launch would morph from a heated contest in which Russia and the United States each achieved their share of firsts—first human in space (Russian Yuri Gagarin) and first men on the Moon (Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin)—into a global collaboration. In November 1998, a little more that forty years after Sputnik launched and NASA’s founding, the two nations would begin the long-term project of launching the pieces and parts that would be assembled into the International Space Station (ISS), humankind’s first permanent home in space. Fifteen nations have participated in the development, creation, and use of ISS. Russian rockets regularly launch European space probes—for example 2003’s Mars Express—into space. With the 2011 end of the space shuttle program, Russian rockets are charged with delivering all human crew and resupply materials to the ISS.
In August of this year, the Mars rover Curiosity endured “seven minutes of terror” upon entering the Martian atmosphere and landing on its surface. At four minutes into the landing sequence, Curiosity’s main parachute deployed, amazingly while Curiosity was still traveling supersonically and after nine months of space travel. Despite weighing only 100 pounds, the parachute was subjected to forces in excess of 60,000 pounds upon opening. It’s the largest parachute ever used outside of the earth’s atmosphere. But what most impressed us about the rover’s landing was that we could watch, albeit with a fourteen-minute relay delay. The world could watch because a satellite we sent earlier is orbiting Mars and was in the correct position to photograph Curiosity’s parachute opening. Astoundingly, shortly after Curiosity’s landing, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) probe was able send back a photo taken by its HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera.
Think about that for a moment. In just sixty-five years, roughly a single person’s lifespan, humans have gone from having a single artificial satellite awkwardly orbiting their own planet to having satellites orbiting another planet—satellites that are sophisticated enough to be controlled, positioned so that when, yet another, spacecraft goes whizzing past, a photograph of a parachute opening can be taken and relayed back to Earth.
Many cultures have an aphorism that expresses the relationship between generations and wealth: one generation to build it, one generation to expand it, one generation to squander it. Lately at Lofty Ambitions we’ve been focused on Generation Space, those individuals born between the launch of Sputnik and the beginning of the shuttle program. The youngest of Generation Space have childhood memories of the first Moon landing and were young adults when Challenger exploded in the sky. In the cultural tale, we’re firmly that second generation in space exploration. We didn’t build the world’s space programs—Sputnik, Apollo, or the Shuttle—but we’ve been charged with taking that intellectual wealth and expanding it. Extending it. Will we bequeath the generation that follows us enough desire, enough passion for space exploration? Will the intellectual, technological, and emotional wealth of the last sixty-five years of space exploration be squandered, or might Mars be next?
Plutonium at Its Worst and Best August 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Chemistry, Mars, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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This week marks the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively, in 1945. Tens of thousands died on those dates, and more people died, as a result of radiation sickness, in the weeks and years following. War reveals human beings at their worst. Nuclear weapons represent our largest, surest capability for self-destruction.
In commemoration for that time, we encourage you to read the poem “Hiroshima’s Secrets” at Lofty Ambitions and to seek out other ways to remember. We’ve written a lot more about nuclear weapons and the nuclear history of the United States—read some of it HERE.
The night before this anniversary—last night—our thoughts were elsewhere. We were following the story of Curiosity, the Mars rover that landed at 10:31pm Pacific Time. Or rather, the rover landed at 10:17pm, and the confirmation signal reached Earth fourteen minutes later. A few minutes after that, two thumbnail photos arrived from Curiosity’s Hazcams, cameras positioned on the front and rear of the rover, cameras with a fisheye lens and amazing focus from four inches to the horizon. Curiosity’s wheels were firmly planted on relatively smooth, even ground. We could see Curiosity’s shadow cast on the surface of Mars.
The two most recent rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—were powered by solar panels. Curiosity, though, is much larger and more complex than those predecessors, so it needed more oomph and a longer life. Besides, solar panels can be compromised by the dust whipping about the Martian landscape. Curiosity is powered, therefore, by what NASA calls “a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) supplied by the Department of Energy.” In other words, Curiosity runs on a nuclear battery containing more than ten pounds of plutonium-238.
In 1941, chemist Glenn Seaborg developed Pu-238 from uranium-238. As it decays and generates the heat that makes it useful as fuel in a robot’s battery, Pu-238 decays back into that uranium isotope. The half-life for Pu-238 is more than eighty-seven years. In comparison, the isotope plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons and in nuclear power plants has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. Pu-238 does not explode like a bomb and is made in a ceramic form in an attempt to reduce health hazards. Neither the United States nor Russia produce Pu-238 anymore, though Russia has a small stockpile from which NASA purchases the isotope. Because its primary use is as battery power for NASA’s robotic space missions, there is some discussion of restarting production in the United States to ensure that the sort of Mars and outer planet exploration NASA has in mind can continue beyond 2020, but funding has not been approved by Congress.
This week, we remember the destruction that nuclear weapons can unleash in a single instant. May we also look to the skies this week and know that Curiosity, powered by its nuclear battery, is readying itself to explore the geochemistry of another world. May we glimpse, in Bill Nye’s words last night, “Humans at their very best.”
The Planetary Society and Your Place in Space August 5, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Art & Science, Mars, Space Shuttle
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Yesterday, we committed ourselves to braving the California intrastate highway system (SR-57 and I-210) in order to attend Planetfest 2012 in Pasadena. Today, we are doing it again. Planetfest is an event held by The Planetary Society, an organization dedicated to furthering the message of the value of planetary exploration through education, outreach, and lobbying. The Planetary Society was founded in 1980 by scientists Carl Sagan, Louis Freedman, and Bruce Murray.
This year, Planetfest is timed to coincide with the landing of the Mars Science Lander (MSL)—now generally known as Curiosity—on August 6th at 5:31 UTC. (Coordinated Universal Time—yes, we know that the acronym doesn’t match the words. It’s the result of one in a long-line of English-language v. French-language scientific squabbles. You can read about it HERE.) It’s rare that timing of any historic event these days favors the West Coast of the United States, but we should have verification of a successful landing by bedtime. The landing should occur at 10:17pm PDT. With the fourteen-minute delay for Curiosity to relay information from Mars back to Earth, that’s 10:31pm for us, plenty of time to celebrate a bit and be home just after midnight.
The first day of Planetfest included dozens of speakers (see our post of quotes yesterday HERE), an exhibit hall, and an art show featuring work by members of the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA). The IAAA was founded as an organization after a group of space artists met at one of the first Planetfests. The Planetary Society has a history of bringing together like-minded individuals and giving them an opportunity to find their “Place in Space.” Those notions of interaction and our place in the universe reached a high point in an afternoon panel featuring early-career scientists and engineers (a couple of whom are still students). Several of the young scientists indicated that their burgeoning interest in space and science was enhanced through contact with The Planetary Society events. One even pointed to a college internship through The Planetary Society.
Attendance at yesterday’s event peaked at about 300 people in the early afternoon. During the day, it was reported that today’s event is completely sold out; there are approximately 1000 seats set up in the Pasadena Convention Center ballroom. So The Planetary Society has arranged for an overflow viewing area for watching the NASA feed of the landing (purchase tickets HERE).
Here at Lofty Ambitions, our first real contact with The Planetary Society came through the SETI@Home program, which asked average folks to process on their home computers signals from radio-telescopes looking for intelligent life somewhere out there in the rest of the universe. The program was co-sponsored by UC-Berkeley. Doug ran SETI@Home on an iMac SE Graphite while he was in graduate school. He fired up that computer earlier this week to see that he’d contributed just under 2500 hours of the iMac’s time to the SETI@Home. If you want more information about how you can participate, take a look HERE.
Shortly after this post is up at Lofty Ambitions, we’ll be making our way once again to Pasadena and Planetfest. It’s landing day! We’re nervous. We’ve watched “Seven minutes of terror” a dozen times–you can watch it at the end of this post. We’ve just finished reading the “Mission Overview” section of the MSL/Curiosity press kit. You don’t have to look too closely at the description of the mission to recognize the complexity of what is being attempted in this Mars landing. At the same time, we’re excited and hopeful and not just a little bit proud of what human beings try to accomplish—and often do accomplish, despite the complexity of the task or the risk involved.
A theme that has run through space-nerd circles since the end of the space shuttle program has been that we—specifically the United States—have become risk averse and that, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “We stopped dreaming.” See that video below. That’s a question for another day. Today is a day for reveling in what we can accomplish when we dare to dream big.
In less than twelve hours, we’re going to drop a Mini-Cooper-sized rover vehicle onto the surface of Mars. It will skydive, then bungee-jump its way down in those last few minutes. If all goes well, in a few weeks, that rover will begin to tell us a story about another planet.
As Bill Nye, ever the Science Guy and now also the CEO of The Planetary Society, said yesterday, “This weekend is going to change the world.” We believe him.
Tags: Chemistry, Mars, Physics
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We spent today at Planetfest 2012, listening to more than a dozen speakers, each with some connection to and great enthusiasm for space exploration in general and the current mission to Mars in particular. As we await tomorrow night’s landing of the Mars rover Curiosity on the Martian surface, we share with you the reasons we heard today for bothering with such an endeavor.
LORI GARVER, NASA Deputy Administrator:
“NASA is a place that carries our dreams and aspirations.”
“We’re the one species that does it [explores] for reasons other than our own survival. […] I believe it is one of our most intrinsically human characteristics.”
Space exploration “helps lift the standard of living for all.”
DAVID BRIN, Science Fiction Author:
“It’s a manifestation of desire when a free people say I want to allocate enough money and patience” to explore space. “Are we a civilization that desires to do this kind of thing? […] We have to become a people again who have a mission.”
SCOTT MAXWELL, Mars Rover Driver:
“The most exciting words are I don’t know.”
“This is the reason we are so lucky to live in this time and place. […] We can have these kinds of adventures.”
“The future has a lovely habit of surprising us.”
There exists “no substitute for going down to the surface.”
JIM BELL, President of The Planetary Society and Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University:
“It’s not easy. […] These [space exploration missions] are some of the hardest things our species does.”
“These layered rocks [on Mars] are telling us a story. […] We’re going to go read those pages of the book.”
JIM GREEN, NASA Director of the Planetary Science Division:
“It has changed everything about our perspective of us in the solar system.”
“I would love to see humans on Mars, boots on Mars. […] Mars is the ultimate destination. […] I’d like to think it will happen in my lifetime.”
RAY ARVIDSON, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, Washington University:
“Understanding of Mars will undoubtedly come back [to Earth].”
BILL NYE, The Science Guy and CEO of The Planetary Society:
“The joy of discovery—that, my friends, is the essence of this business.”
“We’re doing it for much less than a fancy cup of coffee per tax payer.”
TO SUM UP, IN BILL NYE’S WORDS:
“This weekend is going to change the world.”
That’s why we’re heading back to Pasadena tomorrow for more discussions and to watch the streaming coverage of the landing with The Planetary Society. See our previous post “Mars Rover! Mars Rover! Send Curiosity Right Over!” for information on how you can view Mars in the night sky and watch the landing on your computer.
Mars Rover! Mars Rover! Send Curiosity Right Over! August 1, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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That’s right, August 5 is landing day for Curiosity, the latest Mars rover.
One of the reasons that we were excited to move to Southern California was the opportunity to get to know one of the hotbeds of aviation and space exploration. So one of our initial ways of getting out and about during that first year was the open house at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL was established decades ago by the California Institute of Technology and now serves as a NASA research center responsible for building cool stuff like the Mars rovers. The day we visited JPL was sweltering, the sunshine streaming down on us as we waited in a long line for a tour of the building in which Curiosity—the third in this series of three Mars rovers (which follows Pathfinder in 1997)—was being built.
The risk of heat stroke was worth it. We peered from a windowed gallery above onto the clean room where Curiosity was being assembled. This robotic dune buggy lay in pieces, its parts not fully present and recognizable, but it was definitely taking the shape of the mobile laboratory that it is now as it travels to Mars.
Curiosity launched on November 26, 2011, atop an Atlas-V rocket from Kennedy Space Center. (See the video below.) It is scheduled to land on Mars late this coming Sunday, after which it will spend twenty-three months sampling rocks and soil. This rover is designed to surmount obstacles up to twenty-five inches high as it makes its way around the surface of Mars at a rate of about 660 feet per day. Of course, the most important question that NASA and JPL hope Curiosity will answer is “whether the landing area has ever had or still has environmental conditions favorable to microbial life.”
We plan to spend most of this weekend in Pasadena at The Planetary Society’s celebration called PlanetFest 2012. The festivities feature a live viewing of the landing and lots of speakers, not the least of whom is Bill Nye, the Science Guy! We’ll surely have a great deal of information and insight to share here at Lofty Ambitions.
And there are Curiosity parties planned all across the country! Check THIS MAP to find out if there’s an event in your area this weekend.
Even if you don’t go to a Mars party this weekend, you can probably see Mars in the early night sky with your naked eye on August 5, landing day. At sunset, take a look at the western horizon. Mars will be the orange planet slightly above the horizon, between Saturn and a star called Spica. Click HERE for more information on viewing all five visible planets this month, and scroll down for a good picture to show you where Mars will be in the sky this weekend. If you have a telescope (or a friendly neighbor with a telescope), all the better for a peek at Mars.
And you can watch the rover’s landing live on your computer at NASA-TV or through the JPL site dedicated to Curiosity HERE.
If you’re interested in Mars, the rovers, or JPL, click on some of our related posts:
Tags: Discovery Departure, Mars, Museums & Archives, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
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Earlier this year, we traveled to see the space shuttle Discovery transferred from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport outside of Washington, DC. (We wrote about that trip in posts HERE.) During the day of installation activities at the museum, we wandered over to a tent set up for visitors to learn about the Orion space capsule and ideas for more ambitious human space travel in the future. Mike Hawes, Director of Human Spaceflight at Lockheed Martin Space Systems and formerly Chief Engineer for the International Space Station, wants to figure out how to go to Mars.
Hawes explained that, going forward, NASA—or any other entity planning space exploration—will spacecraft that can be differently configured for different missions. A mission to Mars would require a configuration like nothing we currently have, and the specific configuration of launcher and crew vehicle will depend on the plan for how to get there. If we decide to set up an outpost on the Moon and launch a crew from there in the direction of Mars, that plan would require certain design assumptions. Those assumptions would be different if, instead of using the Moon as a stopping point, we decide an asteroid is an intermediate goal.
Hawes asserts, “We need to do some form of Gemini again.” We didn’t race immediately into Apollo and the Moon in the 1960s, and Hawes thinks we need a program to learn more about deeper space, in this context, a mission beyond low-Earth orbit, before we can manage the trip to Mars. What Hawes most wants to happen next is to set up outposts at a Langrangian point or two. These points out in space are the spots between two big objects—like the Earth and the Moon—where the gravitational pull on a third object like a space station (something much smaller than the International Space Station, perhaps two Orion capsules joined together) would be balanced and hold that object in place, relative to the two bodies. (This relationship is referred to as the three-body problem.) Hawes’s choice of Langrangian points for such an outpost would be L2 which is situated farther from the Sun than Earth and farther from the Earth than the Moon. There, the gravitational forces of the Sun and Earth would hold a space station in place while we figured out how to manage the long mission to Mars.
Hawes isn’t the only one to pose this idea. Neil deGrasse Tyson has mentioned it as an option. In his book Space Chronicles, he says, “Unlike a launch from a planet’s surface, where most of your fuel goes to life you off the ground, a Lagrangian launch would be a low-energy affair and would resemble a ship leaving dry dock, cast into the sea with a minimal investment of fuel. [...W]e can think of Lagrangian points as gateways to the rest of the solar system. From the Sun-Earth Lagrangian points, you are halfway to Mars—not in distance or time but in the all-important category of fuel consumption.” He goes on to imagine a future upon which we come to depend on what Hawes proposes: “In one version of our spacefaring future, imagine filling stations at every Lagrangian point in the solar system, where travelers refill their rocket gas tanks en route to visit friends and relatives living on other planets or moons.”
Hawes built on this idea, suggesting that an outpost could cycle between the L2 and L3 Langrangian points in the Earth-Moon system. As he talked, we started imagining how this sort of mission could be an end in itself, whether or not we want to go to Mars. Hawes points out that one of the most important things such a program would investigate is the psychology of deep space travel. For a crew hanging out at a Langrangian point, according to Hawes, there could be re-supply ships sent roughly every twenty-eight days, but there would be no “anytime return.” The crew would be stuck in a way no human space traveler has been stranded before.
We brought up a concern that STS-133 crew member and physician Michael Barratt has brought to our attention on a couple of different occasions. (See one of Barratt’s earlier conversations with us HERE.) Barratt studies the effects of radiation on the human body, and he says deep space poses huge obstacles because the radiation to which a crew would be exposed on a trip to Mars, using current propulsion systems and the speed they can achieve, would likely kill them. Hawes responded, “Internally, we have more shielding [in the vehicle], more shielding to do that [protect the crew from radiation], but Mike’s right.” Hawes sees the problem as something engineers can solve and adds, “We need to start testing materials to those radiation levels.” In other words, we have some basic problems to solve before we can send astronauts very far at all.
“The doctors always seem behind where the crew is ready to go,” Hawes said. That echoed a conversation we had with Jim Tully, the mayor of Titusville, Florida, who said he’d go on a one-way mission to Mars if he had the chance. People are excited about the idea of going to Mars, regardless of practical issues and regardless of the fact that we’ve already sent rovers there. And active research into how a human might survive the trip is underway, with the Mars Science Lander hauling along on its voyage to Mars a radiation detector so that we can measure and better understand the deep space radiation environment.
In fact, Curiosity will join Spirit and Opportunity on that planet’s surface in August. But Hawes thinks rovers have limits. A rover moves a few feet, stops, and reports back, with a lag time in communication. Rovers are useful but tedious, according to Hawes. “If it’s just robots,” he said, “they’re [the general public] not really invested in the vision.”
Everyone seems to agree that, if we’re going to send human beings anywhere beyond Earth’s orbit, we need a vision. Without a vision, we’ll miss the chance to solve a lot of problems, including radiation effects on people, and the chance to understand the universe in new ways. “We’re really just on the verge of needing these things,” Hawes told us. But he sees a bright future, in the near and long term, if we form a vision: NASA-based long-distance space programs are “going to engender commercial opportunities.” Just this month, NASA revealed more of its deep-space vision with the unveiling of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
Interview: Walt Cunningham February 13, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Apollo, Mars
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Lofty Ambitions had fun talking with Walt Cunningham in 2010, in part because he doesn’t hold back his opinion, whether the topic is going to Mars or global warming. It’s easy to disagree with his ideas, but it’s not easy to stop listening.
In October 1968, Cunningham flew on Apollo 7, a mission we wrote about because it was the first time the now-famous space pen went to space. We sent the link (HERE) to Walt Cunningham, and he responded that we got the story right.
Born in Iowa in 1932, Walt Cunningham is a Midwesterner-turned-Californian like us. His master’s degree is in physics, but his B.A. is in literature, and he’s certainly not the only astronaut who read widely for a broad understanding of the world. He worked as a scientist at the Rand Corporation before joining NASA and was part of the Skylab program after his Apollo stint. He retired from NASA in 1971, but he’s kept busy by writing and investing. And saying exactly what he wants to say.
Opportunity Knocks January 25, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Biology, Chemistry, Mars
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On January 25, 2004, a robotic rover called Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars, our closest neighbor planet. Opportunity’s life story is a good model for thinking about our own human goals. It took more than five months and more than 34 million miles to get there, but that day marked the beginning of the rover’s real work. The next 21-plus miles has been the exciting part of the journey for scientists. The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover was designed to last 90 Martian days, which are just over 39 minutes longer than Earth days.
By its second day on Mars, Opportunity had a joint problem with a robotic arm that is supposed to be stowed when it moves. But the rover—and NASA—made do and eventually developed a way to move safely without stowing the arm. For months in 2005, Opportunity was stuck in the sand. Again, the rover—and NASA—patiently inched around and eventually started roving again.
All this time, Opportunity has been collecting soil samples, monitoring the climate, and sending back amazing photographs of the Martian landscape. The rover is basically a moving science mini-laboratory. It x-rays and performs microscopic imaging of rock and soil samples, then sends analyses of constituent elements back to Earth. Its Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer examines rocks and soil to figure out how they were formed. Scientists are especially interested to know whether and when water may have existed on Mars. In December, NASA announced that Opportunity had examined what seemed to be gypsum deposited in veins by water.
As of this month, seven years after its landing, Opportunity sits on the north end of Cape York, which is on the rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover is still looking around and conducting measurements, including Doppler tracking. The robotic arm is still working; it positioned the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer on January 12.
Opportunity’s twin, called Spirit, landed three weeks before Opportunity on January 4, 2004. Before the end of the month, Spirit faced a flash memory problem. NASA spent ten days reformatting, patching, and testing in order to fix the problem. Luckily, the fix worked and was applied to Opportunity as well. Even after Spirit got stuck in 2009, the rover continued to send back information. NASA’s final contact with Spirit was on March 10, 2010, more than six years after its landing. A little bit of failure goes a long way to success.
Curiosity launched on November 26, 2011. It is currently cruising (it’s in the cruise phase of the mission) and will arrive on Mars after 193 more days, in August. This rover is much bigger than its twin predecessors and will check out the Red Planet in ways that will help us plan a mission to put human beings on the surface of Mars. Of course, Curiosity will live up to its name by studying the planet’s geological evolution, radiation levels, and chemical makeup.
Few people are as enthusiastic about the Mars rovers as Ken Kremer. He does a lot of work processing the images that Mars rovers send back. Read his Lofty Ambitions guest post HERE. See his work at Universe Today HERE and HERE.
To read Anna’s very different take on the Mars rovers and how they can inspire a writing life, read her guest post “Curiouser and Curiouser” at Chandra Hoffman’s blog HERE.
As we celebrate today’s anniversary of Opportunity’s landing, consider the meaning of that word. John F. Kennedy once pointed out that the Chinese ideogram for the word crisis is composed of two characters, one meaning danger but the other meaning opportunity. We’re not sure we should learn Chinese from Kennedy, but the notion points to the relationship between failure and success about which we’ve written before here at Lofty Ambitions. What is the set of circumstances or conditions that will make it possible to accomplish something? How will we create our next opportunity, perhaps inch our way out of a metaphorical sand dune or take care of that all too real bum shoulder joint? Sometimes, it takes 34 million miles to get where you need to be, only to find out that the fun is in the next 21 miles of meandering. Is there an opportunity knocking—or knocking you over?
Guest Blog: William Taber May 2, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.
Tags: Art & Science, Mars, Physics
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As we sit in the Press Center at Kennedy Space Center for the not-launch of Endeavour, we feel surprisingly positive. Our guest blogger today, Dr. William Taber, has a lot to say about the success of space exploration.
We met Bill at a Chapman University function, discovered he works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory not far away, and were especially impressed with his enthusiasm, curiosity, and appreciation of writing and poetry. Bill is the Technical Group Supervisor for the Mission Design and Navigation Software Group of the Mission Design and Navigational section. His group is responsible for the development and maintenance of JPL’s core navigation and trajectory design software. This software is used to design, navigate and control the flight path of all of NASA’s interplanetary exploration projects. Bill is also a fellow Illinoisan, earning his Ph.D. and M.S. at the University of Illinois and his B.A. from Eastern Illinois University.
We’ve had a slew of fantastic bloggers, and we know that Bill’s words both will make you think seriously and will stir up emotions.
POSTCARDS FROM EARTH
It was a long time ago in a place far, far away, but I still remember my introduction to the space age. On a dark, clear, moonless summer night in 1962, my dad told my brother and me to come with him to look at the night sky, black and filled with more stars than could be counted over our rural home in northwest Illinois. At age 7, I was used to looking up at the stars on a clear night. I knew that the stars didn’t move around. But that night one star moved. A bright point of light moved silently overhead, moving in a straight line across the velvet blackness between the stars. It was the communications satellite Telstar.
It would be poetic to say that evening launched me on the path to my career and my current position as the group supervisor of the Mission Design and Navigation Software group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. It’s more accurate to say it perturbed my trajectory, the way the gravitational tug of a planet alters the path of a comet pulling it into the inner solar system. The space race stirred my imagination and led me to study science and mathematics. I read everything I could find on astronomy, starting close to home with the moon. From there, I branched out to planets, to stars, to galaxies, and then to the cosmos. At some point, I fell in love with mathematics, in particular geometry and its ability to say something “true” about the world and the structure of the universe. All of this eventually led me to a Ph.D. in mathematics and a thesis in Riemannian geometry.
Through a series of improbable events, I ended up—in 1983—working at JPL, the world’s epicenter for planetary exploration. In 1985, I began working on the most extraordinary robotic exploration mission ever flown, Voyager. Launched in 1977, the twin spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, visited all of the giant planets of the solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. From Voyager we learned about volcanoes on moons, discovered rings around the outer planets, discovered new satellites, and got the first—in some cases only—close-up views of the planets and satellites beyond Mars. The Voyager spacecraft are still operating today, heading for interstellar space, sampling the tenuous flow of particles from the sun, looking for the boundary where our sun becomes just another star.
Yet even with all of their discoveries, the Voyager spacecraft are not entirely about science. They are also about who we are and where we have been. On board each Voyager is a “golden record” of sounds and images from the diversity of life and the people of earth. To see and hear some of it on YouTube, see below. Each record is a testament to the unbounded optimism of the scientists and engineers who built and flew the Voyager spacecraft. These artifacts of humankind will endure long after our planet and solar system have passed from the galaxy. They are a message in a bottle, a postcard from earth to the rest of the universe, saying we were here.
On Valentine’s Day, 1990, long after Voyager’s cameras could return any more science images, the mission controllers at JPL honored the request of the late Carl Sagan to command Voyager 1 to turn its camera back toward the inner solar system to take one last sequence of 60 pictures. These images show the sun, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune as seen from the edge of the solar system. (Mars and Mercury were lost in the glare of the sun.) Collectively, Voyager’s last set of pictures has become known as the Voyager Family Portrait. These pictures have no scientific value. There is no new science to be learned from them. And yet, I learned as much from these images as I did from all of the scientific images returned by the Voyagers. Looking at these images displayed across the wall of JPL’s Von Karman auditorium, I was forever changed. The reality of how tiny we are in the universe and of the vast emptiness between the stars was seared into my mind. And with this sense of smallness was sense that I was witness to a piece of humankind taking one last look in the rearview mirror, before heading out on a voyage to the stars, carrying postcards from earth into the cosmos.
Frequently, those of us in space exploration are asked why we do it. Is it worth the cost? We talk about the new science we will learn and how we will better understand our own planet. Those are all good, rational reasons. But when it comes down to it, those rational reasons don’t do it for me. They probably don’t do it for anyone else either. We explore space for the collective fun of humankind and to satisfy our curiosity. Space exploration challenges and excites the imagination. It changes what we are—for the better, I think. And maybe, by sending our robotic emissaries out into the cosmos, we have a chance to look back at ourselves and discover something of our humanity here on earth.