Saturday, January 3, 2004  [!]
[This is part 2 of the live Planetary Society event, Wild About Mars. Earlier one is below. Plus, later coverage of post-landing on Jan 4 page.]

There's a live webcast, too.... So if you want to see it, go to the Planetary Society's site.

8:00... Background presentation on the star of the show, Mars, by Bruce Betts. Images of three Mars landing sites, viking 1, 2, and Pathfinder. Imagine trying to find out everything about a planet by only three views. Hence Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), which seeks to follow the water. MER much larger than Pathfinder, it'll leave behind the landing shell and will wander wherever. [Difference from Pathfinder, which had instrumentation on landing shell, so Pathfinder would go back to base, and you could see an image of the Pathfinder roving robot itself. But by putting everything on the robot, no dramatic images of the Rover, and the Rover is free to go wherever mission directors deem best, leaving behind the shell.]

Landing site: Gusev crater. A valley nearby, looks like it might be a channel where water once was. Now Bruce Betts is talking us through the Dan Maas video. [Dan Maas rocks!]

8:24 we're 6 minutes away from entry into Mars atmosphere. [gulp]

We'll have commentary from Donna Shirley [Mars mission director, with Pathfinder] who's giving commentary. We'll watch NASA TV with commentary on what we're seeing on NASA TV....

donna shirley:

Butterflies, bitten nails and excitement at the lab.

Something glitch with Deep Space Network. trying to reacquire the signal.

awaiting word on landing:

velocity 12000 miles per hour current velocity.

side note: Lander is down; but we're hearing this in delay mode, because signal limited to speed of light.

[note: it's tense here in the room]

8:32 deceleration going as expected. parachute deployment soon w/in a minute.

1000+ mph.... 300 mph. Parachute detected! applause here in the room....

heat shields off! altitude 8000' feet

airbag in approx 25 seconds.

we got radar lock (YES!)

retro rocket firing.. await word to confirm!

awaiting word that we are on the ground. signs of bouncing on the surface!!!!!!

applause!!!!!!! we got bouncing word. we heard we do not have signal from spacecraft. Rolling.... spacecraft has to survive all boucning for landing to be a success...

got word on landing yay:

vehicle could bounce and roll up to a kilometer from its initial impact point. Awaiting word.

the way that canberra is processing might be producing noise that makes it hard to hear actual signal. [heh. signal? noise? say it ain't so!]

We are trying to get direct signal, and will keep doing so until earthset. Then there are two orbiting vehicles that can pick up signal and then relay it on to us. Donna is telling us about Pathfinder's lack of telemetry, and the fact that this mission has lots of telemetry, so we've got lots of data.

mars lander waiting:

If it bouncing around, and landed in a position so that the antenna is in right position. Bags have to deflate, and the petals open (and right themselves)

May have a data packet that might indicate something from vehicle, but need a bit more time. Positive confirmation of signal. We're down! (applause here, but no reaction in teh control room onscreen)

Awaiting semaphor tones from landed vehicle. That'll take a lotta processing to come across.

Stanford University reports that it might have received signal from Rover independenbly

SIGNAL!! Applause. applause applause and handshakes. (applause here too! lots.)

Lots of very relieved, happy people onscren at flight control.

mars landing yesss:

Goldstone has carrier signal in lock from the rover.

we're getting commentary: high-five the airbag guy, that's the mission director for Pathfinder. That's the president of CalTech, that's Sean O'Keefe, NASA administrator, etc.

When is earthset? Donna Shirley asks... Very shortly there'll be earthset. At that point, no direct signal, but through Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey.

...one of the signal tones, rover landed base petal down, so opening up will be easier.

Retract the airbags, take as long as needed, critical procedure, then open petals (12 mins) then deploy the solar arrays. critical, because if dosn't work, then the mission is over. So far it's a best case scenario.

for NASA TV..l 9:30 pm scheduled news conference on NASA TV. 11:00 with commentary.

Applause, standing ovation... things could not be better, saith Donna Shirley and Bruce Betts

we'll hear from the student scientists from JPL (who;ve been hugging a lot of sweaty scientists).

[off from the 7th row seat back to the wall where the beloved electrical outlet is. Sorry, not gonna convey the "Student Astronauts" fone conversation. Okay, that's over. Now we're on a break until the 9:30 news conference.

I gotta say, walking in to this place (Pasadena Civic Center, Planetary Society MarsFest) with a wi-fi-enabled computer, finding signal and typing what I see is very cool indeed. (Scoble says I beat CNN to the news. cool!). I wish I were wearing a shirt or button that says, "I'm blogging this." (BTW, we got pictures, too, but it'll be a while before those are up)

1/3/04; 8:20:01 PM | Space | Discuss | # | |

location: Pasadena Civic Auditorium, at the Planetary Society's event, Wild About Mars, where public can attend (for a fee). Will be shown live coverage of Mars rover landing, and whatever NASA TV is broadcasting (beginning at 6:45pm), as well as information about Stardust.

6:08 pm We've got wi-fi coverage. Now, about some electricity (iBook; 1 internal battery, charged). Just got here; sitting in front of a very big screen 7 rows from the front. They're showing that outstanding animation by Dan Maas.

6:36. Intro comments by Louis Friedman, Planetary Society. Tonight's presentation is a dramatic, long evening. Unlike the movies, we don't know how it's going to turn out.

Bill Nye (The Science Guy): Tonight we're going to Mars. I remember back in the first disco era, in the 1970s, my old professor, Carl Sagan would come to lecture with these astonishing images from another world, from Mars. Ever since those missions, everyone's wondered what else.... Ever since the Viking mission, we wondered what else there was. On this mission, we'll be able to drive around. People ask me, What are you going to find? We don't know. That's why we're going. I was just at JPL this afternoon, and they were going to do a last course correction, but they decided not to do it, b/c they're so on target, so in the bullseye. I was here in 1999, (when it didn't work) But tonight we're very hopeful. IN the next few hours, less than 2 hours, the spacecraft will land itself. Getting no more signals.

The Mars team is trying to do its best to land in the Medusa crater (?), an ancient lake, likely where it might have had water. At one time it had what it needs to have for life. If htis or the Jan 25th mission, if find what we need to find fossils... it would change the world. It's a bargain. Only 410 million bucks apiece. 1 Macchiato latte per taxpayer.

Bruce Betts. to introduce the fly-through of the comet, Stardust. Bruce: Schedule changes, etc. We're showing a NASA press briefing to 9:30, moving Ray Bradbury reading up earlier.

Introducing Stardust team. Fabulous fly-through of the Comet, sharing early results.

Someone else: We're going to mars tonight, but we went to a comet yesterday. It was a startling revelation to see something totally differnt than we've ever seen before. It's a body that comes apart when it enters the inner solar system.

Slide 1: It's like flying out to Pluto, but meet the comet, which came to us. The materials that made the comet actually come from much farther away. They're the fundamental building blocks of the solar system, and they're the building blocks of us. The atoms in our bodies come from stardust. We took spectucular pictures, we're bringign it back to Utah January 15th 2 years from now...

Slide 2: It's hard to detect planets w/o presence of stars, but it's easy to detect dust.

Movie showing how it's done. May try to find a link to it if it's on the Stardust Mission site:

Intro Tom Duxbury from JPL, project manager (all spellings right now are approximate). Tom: A hint of some fo the images we saw. What we did. If anybody's been in deserty dusty areas, where potential of wind blows up dust. We sent spacecraft around dust cloud that was travelling around 10-20,000 miles per hour. IN order to survive, had to put on bulletproof dust shields around the spacecraft; penetrated one or two layers of protection.

Came w/in 250 kilometers of the comet. Showing iamges from deep space w/in last hour. Shown on Mac laptop in Photoshop.

Debate: are these dents craters, or gas vents? There is not a ring around the comet. Lower part looks like 2 footprints. We believe that they are jets. They look like craters, but there'll be great scientific debate whether they're craters or remains of previous vents. The tremendously deep depression appears to be almost as deep as it is wide. Cratering phoenomena on comets are totally different than on other bodies.

This is the first sample mission since old Apollo days.

Analysis of some fo the dust impactsm talked about by Ben [?]: Planetary Society founded shortly after Viking mission. Comets are surprisingly complex bodies; always surprise us. Mars is the only planet in our solar system that possibly could have harbored life. Comets have lots of organic compounds... Could comets have had some relations to the origins of life on earth (and mebbe on Mars)? It is possible that planets can create organic compounds by lightning strikes.. Very exciting times; this comet has given us new surprises.

We went there to collect dust. One question re: the mission: Did we really pass through significant quantities of dust? slide detailing thrusters and orientation of spacecraft to orient it properly as it went into the dust. (looked at record of the large and small thrusters to analyze data to see what the spacecraft did when it went through).

Small engine snuck in. the little thruster ((he holds it between index and thumb, very small. From 7 rows back, I can't see it). Intro to next speaker...

Tom McCanmoo (?) from Univ of Chicago. Prime scientific objective was to tell how much mass through the detectors. Slide of dust flux monitor instrument.

[note: battery level sinks fast; I'm gonna hold off blogging until there's more about Mars, sorry all you technical boys with technical vue-graphs up on the dais]

From another presentation: Comet results analyzed and released September 2006.

Speaker [? can't tell, am now at eleectric outlet out of good view of stage] This is a sample return mission, where we'll be able to take billion year old astronomical object, that can be analyzed in labs by scientists all over the world down to the atomic level.

Q&A. Q: How big is comet and how far is it from us now? A: comet is 5 km across, and is currently 2.8 astronomical units away from earth. Just a few weeks ago, it's been behind the sun (also spacecraft) both are on other side of solar system, both quite far away, fortunately out from behind the sun. An intersting challenge: message to spacecraft and response takes almost an hour's time.

Q: How did you get the aerogel to stick to its surface/frame? (aerogel: substance collecting dust particles; I saw it a while back, and will link to it eventually). It's stuck inside (wedged?) like an ice cube tray.

Q: If aerogel is so undense/light, why don't particles go straight through it. A: Aerogel has very fine structure. It brakes one particle at a time, so to slow down particles.

Time: 7:40. A transition coming up....Bruce Murray to introduce visitor and readings. Think this is gonna be Ray Bradbury. Sorry, won't be blogging this. Want the battery to recharge for the Mars part of the evening. Will continue after this in a new news item.

Ray Bradbury: What we're witnessing tonight, for Mars mission, in cost terms, is the equivalent of one day's budget by the defense department. This mission is about how life came to be, it's about *creation*...

(from an anecdote re: re-writing a planetarium program) A planetarium is a church, a synagogue, where we go to worship the universe

1/3/04; 6:21:16 PM | Space | Discuss | # | |

The JPL Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Landing schedule page. Go read it. Tons of nail-biting activity in a very small period of time just before landing. I read it out loud to my (JPL employee) boyfriend, Doc M. He almost squirmed as he heard it.

He told me that the success rate for Mars missions is 1 out of 3. It goes up when you actually reach Mars, to 1 out of 2. (many Russian failures included blowing up on launch pad, failure reaching orbit). Spirit has reached the planet.

Still, Mars Polar Lander reached Mars orbit, and so did the Mars Climate Orbiter, but they both smacked right into the planet (or burned up in entry). There was no telemetry (radio status signal) from either of those failed missions, so no way to understand exactly what happened. That's one reason why the MER missions are designed to broadcast different tones for different events or status.

In one of the final phases (Step 9), a radar measures the distance from the surface, in order to calculate what kind of braking thrust to apply. My boyfriend's section is the radar one. "I think we built that radar," he says. And then reminds me of the section Christmas party, where one guy was referred to, the head of that particular project. (He was also kinda squirming, too).

This is just an all-around squirmy day.

Doc M's listing all the ways that things could fail at this point. "Things could go perfectly, up till the end and we'd still lose the mission. If it bounces on a rock wrong and punctures one or two of those balloons; we'd lose the mission." Scenario after scenario. "It could go into a crevasse! Perfect! Lost." I'm starting to squirm. Might as well trim my nails now so I don't bite 'em off.

1/3/04; 2:55:10 PM | Space | Discuss | # | |

...kinda stretches the imagination to think that one of them (don't know which) is comin' in for a landing in hours....

spacecraft assembly facility:

star tracker:

installing air bags:

(pictures taken late September 2002 on a visit to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at Jet Propulsion Lab)

1/3/04; 1:22:41 PM | Space | Discuss | # | |

Landing: 8:35 pm tonight Pacific time.

The final minutes before landing are gonna be pretty wild, though:

Once Spirit enters the Martian atmosphere and begins a harrowing high-speed descent, though, communication will become precarious. The rover is programmed to send out signals at every key stage, including the moment when it comes to rest after an initial impact that may send it bouncing as high as a four-story building. But spectators on Earth may be in for a painful period of suspense, even if the rover does land safely.

Signals may be lost as Spirit is buffeted by high winds and extreme heat during the final six minutes of its descent. The enormous folds of the parachute designed to slow it down as it nears the surface of the planet may also foil attempts to communicate.

I'll be reporting from the Mars party in Pasadena tonight thrown by the Planetary Society. Here's hoping they've got wi-fi there. If you can get NASA TV (Channel 64 on Charter Cable in Pasadena area, your numberage may vary), tune in at 6:45pm pacific to see coverage.

Here's the JPL MER Landing schedule page

1/3/04; 12:42:28 PM | Space | Discuss | # | |