This past weekend, October 11th and 12th, marked the return of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) annual Open House. The 2013 event was canceled due to the federal government’s budgetary issues. The Lofty Duo has attended JPL’s Open House in previous years, but this year only Doug was able to make the trek up and around Los Angeles to JPL’s home in Pasadena.
JPL’s Open House is an intoxicating mix of Southern California street fair, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) carnival, and full-on NerdFest. The Open House regularly draws upwards of 15,000 people on each of its two days. A casual glance around the JPL grounds made it seem as if this year’s event might actually top those numbers. Perhaps it was a bit of pent-up demand deriving from last year’s cancellation and people’s continuing enthusiasm for space exploration.
The Open House is also a large event from a geographical perspective. As the map of JPL’s event shows, there were 22 different sites at the JPL campus to visit, if a person had time. Several years ago, a museum exhibit curator told us that she planned for three kinds of patrons: streakers, strollers, and studiers. Here at Lofty Ambitions, we are definitely studiers. We read every bit of text that accompanies an exhibit, and we have been known to track down docents to get any lingering questions answered. In that context, Doug had to be very strategic in planning his JPL Open House experience.
The attendance figures that point to interest in science in general and space science in particular are heartening. However, large crowds also meant long lines for certain sites. Last time, this waiting led to a tiny bit of disappointment because we couldn’t see as much as we’d expected. Specifically, we were unable to make it into the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF). So, this time, the SFOF was his first stop.
Built in 1963, the SFOF is JPL’s mission control center for all of its interplanetary missions. The volunteer who introduced the SFOF pointed out that not only are the missions controlled via the SFOF, but all of the science data that is collected by the interplanetary probes and planetary rovers first passes through the computers of the SFOF.
Included among the missions currently controlled from the SFOF are the two still-active Mars rovers: the Mini Cooper-sized Curiosity and the more diminutive, but remarkably tenacious, Opportunity. As of this writing, Opportunity is on Sol 3813. A Sol is a Martian solar day, and it is roughly 3% longer than an Earth day. Opportunity and Spirit were originally designed for a 90-day mission length, and as the home page for the rovers proudly points out, it also means that Opportunity is 3723 Sols past its warranty. In other words, Opportunity has been operational 40 times longer that was planned.
In JPL’s mission control, the person in charge of a particular mission is known as the Ace. During this year’s Open House, the Aces for both Curiosity and Opportunity were present. The tour of the SFOF also included the room where Curiosity’s landing was controlled. A cardboard cut-out of the now famous “NASA Mohawk Guy,” Bobak Ferdowsi, stood keeping watch in the corner.
After the SFOF, Doug headed to site #17, Mobility and Robotic Technologies. On display in the parking lot of JPL Building 318 were a variety of rover-like vehicles. Two projects that caught Doug’s eye: TRESSA, or Teamed Robots for Exploration and Science on Steep Areas, and BRUIE, or Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration. Although the lengths that NASA scientists will go to for an acronym is often impressive in and of itself, the technology behind these two projects was more impressive.
TRESSA uses three collaborative robots—two so-called Anchorbots and a Cliffbot—to scale rocky slopes of up to 85 degrees. TRESSA was designed to perform experimental work similar to the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. In the summer of 2006, TRESSA was tested in Norway.
BRUIE is a kind of submersible. It’s controlled like a rover, but it’s designed to crawl along the underside of open water ice. The ultimate hope would be to use a BRUIE-inspired robot to investigate the ocean’s of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
Doug also had a chance to see a film about the Low-Density Supersonic Demonstrator project, so it was a full day and seems to deserve more than one post.
To read Part 2 about–wait for it–LDSD, click HERE.