JPL & EarthNow (Part 2)

To start with our first post on “JPL & Earth Now,” click HERE.

JPL Clean Room Attire
JPL Clean Room Attire

On Monday, November 4th, one of us—Doug—participated in the #EarthNow NASA Social at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, just up the road a bit in Pasadena. We’re huge fans of the NASA Social program, and this was the fourth such event (the others being GRAIL, Dryden, & Dryden Airborne Science) that at least one of us has attended. The NASA Social program has been a huge boon to NASA’s social media standing. In fact, NASA was recently been named the eighth most engaged brand on social media. #EarthNow was the 72nd social media event that NASA has held. Over 5000 people have participated in NASA social media events since the first Tweet-up in Jan. 2009 (also held at JPL).

#EarthNow was planned as a two-day event, but unfortunately due to a last minute work meeting, Doug could only attend the first day. He was sated anyway because NASA packs a lot into these events. This time, there were ten separate presentations and a three-stop tour crammed into the first 8:30-5:30 day.

RapidScat was presented by Ernesto Rodriquez, Project Scientist, and Howard Eisen, Project Manager. RapidScat—which will make its earth observations while attached to the Columbus science laboratory, 250 miles above the earth on the International Space Station (ISS)—will be used to gather a continuous picture of ocean winds. The two RapidScat scientists pointed out that this research effort could be very useful in predicting Earth’s weather, particularly in forecasting hurricanes.

RapidScat in progress
RapidScat in progress

Project Scientist Rodriguez reminded us early in his talk that we should think of our planet as an ocean. In Rodriguez’s work, the landmasses of the Earth are just an afterthought. He went on to describe the oceans as the flywheel of climate and furthered the analogy by referring to the ocean’s winds as the “unruly mice”—driven by the warmth of the sun—that power the flywheel. Measuring the direction and speed of the unpredictable winds over the ocean is raison d’être of his project, RapidScat.

The “scat” part of RapidScat’s name—and the tool with which it quantifies the actions of those unruly mice—stands for scatterometer. Scatterometers are radar-based devices that, in their spaceborne configuration, have primarily been tasked with measuring winds on the surface of Earth’s oceans. As the project website for RapidScat says, scatterometers “work by safely bouncing low-energy microwaves—the same kind used at high energy to warm up food in your kitchen—off the surface of Earth.”

RapidScat is a quick-response follow-on science mission to QuickScat, which was launched in 1999. When QuickScat’s primary instruments ceased to function ten years later, scientists around the world had an immediate data void. RapidScat has been agilely assembled in an attempt to fill that void. In this light, Rodriguez and Eisen jokingly mentioned that the RapidScat program was “old hardware, new science.” It turns out that RapidScat is being assembled from the engineering models and spares that were developed for QuickScat.

JPL Environmental Testing Chamber
JPL Environmental Testing Chamber

Satellite and spacecraft design and engineering processes often result in duplicate systems being developed. The fidelity of those engineering models varies from the Hubble Structural Dynamic Test Vehicle, which started life as a hollow cylinder and evolved to meet the needs of the engineering development and testing program, to the Skylab backup that sits on the floor of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. In the movie Contact (adapted from a novel by Carl Sagan), mega-industrialist S. R. Hadden says, “First rule in government spending: why build one when you can have two at twice the price?” Contrary to the movie’s joke, RapidScat has been done for a very affordable $26,000,000—affordable in light of  $400,000,000 estimate for a whole-cloth spacecraft—by reusing engineering items that were sitting idle in storage. Project Manager Eisen said that the RapidScat instruments had been in storage for fifteen years when an engineering team pulled them out, supplied them with power, and flipped the switch. Voilà. It worked.

As an aside and a reminder that NASA often provides an excellent return on our tax dollars, the original QuickScat satellite was designed to last two or three years in space. It lasted ten years. It’s very reminiscent of another JPL program, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, each of which operated more than an order of magnitude (scientist talk for a power of ten) longer that the original 90-day mission lifetime.

Use of ISS is another part of why RapidScat is so cost-effective. By using the ISS as a power supply and a communications infrastructure, the RapidScat team was able to avoid building a satellite to carry the RapidScat instruments in orbit. ISS will effectively serve as the satellite, and RapidScat is largely a collection of instruments hitching a ride on ISS. The use of ISS does necessitate some engineering redesign; RapidScat is getting a new antenna. And some compromises were necessary; the engineers aren’t precisely certain where on the Columbia module the instrument will be mounted (this has implications for data collection). But all in all, hitching a ride on ISS seems to be working out for everyone.

Deer at JPL
Deer at JPL

The other costly part of any satellite program is climbing up Earth’s gravitational well (“going uphill” in the words of some space launch veterans) and establishing a low-earth orbit. RapidScat’s cost savings in this area are due to the munificence of SpaceX. SpaceX is launching RapidScat for free. SpaceX needs to validate its systems to establish that it can carry science payloads, so they are using RapidScat in their own engineering programs as part of establishing their space worthiness. RapidScat will be the first science mission that SpaceX flies, and they are using the innovative, unpressurized “trunk” feature of the Dragon capsule to carry RapidScat to ISS. Once the instrument arrives at the ISS, the station’s robot arm will be used to install the instrument.

The data generated by RapidScat will be open and free to scientists all over the world. This is an important point that we’ve discussed before and one that Rodriguez pointed out when he indicated that he’d been born and raised in a third-world country where scientists wouldn’t ordinarily have access to this kind of data if every entity had to gather such data itself. He and Lofty Ambitions are looking forward to the launch of RapidScat in 2014 and the data it will make available for years after.

Go on to Part 3 of this series HERE.

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