Saturday, January 10, 2004  [!]
The first web site I've visited since I discovered it earlier this week is Adot's Notblog*. Asa, who usually covers matters relating to Mozilla, has been transcribing the daily press briefings on the Mars Rovers.

Today's news: Front and Rear wheels deployed. The Rover's gonna egress off the back, and will do so a little earlier than expected (that is, with the delays factored in: first they said it'd take a little longer, now they say it's gonna be shorter than the longer estimate).

They have to go through decision cycles (send commands to Spirit, get results back via telemetry or hazcam fotos to check that command-results were successful), and had originally budgeted two such sessions a day, but with the Interplanetary Network from Earth to Odyssey (satellite orbiting Mars) to Spirit, they got in a third. So, with more decision cycles, and deciding to not make an adjustment to the lander petals, egress speeds up. They'll send the "go" command Tuesday night our time.

(Incidentally, I just heard this anecdote about the Interplanetary Network from my boyfriend, Doc M, who relayed a conversation with his radar-engineer colleague who was responsible for the radar deployed during Entry, Descent and Landing. On topics of "wow, ain't it cool" they both marveled at the Interplanetary Network. The radar guy went in to begin work on the telemetry data sent back from the rover; he expected it'd take a couple of days for everything to trickle down. But because of Spirit transmitting data to Odyssey during each of Odyssey's orbiting passes, the overall data rate of this mission is blindingly fast compared to conservative predictions. Heh. He thought he'd get a little rest in before digging into data analysis. But no! It was all there and waiting for him the next day.)

Also from the press briefing: Transfer of over 200 megabits of data, 10 times more than the entire data transferred during Pathfinder.

. . . . .

Last night I watched the previously TiVo'd Nova program: Mars, Dead or Alive. Very cool. very very good. You can even view it on the web in several segments.

Sure, it's fun to watch the opening shots that are on home turf, driving into JPL (or, as Doc M calls it, "going onto the lab" tho he bikes more than drives), and shots of his workplace. Sure. That's enough to make you say "Cool!" But just before watching it, I had been writing letters to niece and nephews describing what it was like to watch the landing last weekend in a room of 2000 people. I tried to convey my awe to people aged 8-12. Probably to them landing on the moon happened in "the olden days" and I don't know how much of this is taken for granted. And telling them about seeing the Rovers while they were being built, and the people working on them were all wearing protective covering. My thoughts at the time: "These machines are bound for Mars, that planet that's a little red dot in our night sky." My words, I felt, were weak. Would they get it?

So in the opening segment, I see people dressed as for surgery, then the camera dollies back to show that it's a robot they're operating on, not a human. And a quick shot of Rob Manning on the observation deck, thumbs up. Yes, that was where I was when I saw the rovers. Recognition! Yes, that's it! (niece and nevvies have gotta see this show!)

And then the show picks up from late summer 2002, Launch minus one year and counting. The show went into detail on design and test of the airbags and the parachute, both of which had big problems in initial tests and required extensive redesign. See the engineers sweat the details. The deadline can't be changed, thanks to the ways of planetary mechanics. Mars and Earth draw closer in orbits. Make the launch or abort the mission.

Brilliant animation depicting how all the equipment that was on Pathfinder's lander went onto the new Mars rovers, but all that extra stuff had to fold up so it'd still fit into the smaller lander space. (makes me appreciate all the more the current news coming out of the mission as Spirit unfolds.)

Then the launch. I've been to two rocket launches... Two years ago: Jason/Timed, two earth-orbiting satellites launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, and six months later, the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavor from Cape Canaveral, in early June (same basic location and time of year as Spirit's launch, tho a different launch pad).

Watching the MER engineering and science teams, and their cries of "Go! Go! Go!" as the rocket climbed into the sky, brought back memories from the Jason/Timed launch. I remember hearing Doc M say "go! go! go!" that as the rocket soared; it seemed, I dunno, a bit strange, just like that strange word, "nominal," that those rocket and space science boys and girls use (nominal = optimum, best expected, good condition). Well, sure, I was happy to be there and I marvelled at that brilliant plume of flame. I came to the launch not quite knowing what to expect, and considered it a wonderful, magical treat: Launch is happening to us right now, and it's so exciting. Watching Spirit's launch last night, with two years since Jason/Timed launch under my belt, plus a shuttle launch to boot (bearing in mind how soon after liftoff Challenger exploded), and then the breakup of Columbia last year, plus a couple of visitor's days on "the lab," one of which had me witness those very vehicles that are heading to Mars, yes Mars!, and then the show's lead-up to launch with all its problems to overcome, the "go! go! go!" didn't strike me as strange at all. Of course you urge that fiery beast up, of course you cheer it on with "go! go! go!" It's the most natural thing to do, and how did I ever feel otherwise? Finally, I get it now. Launch does not just happen to us. It requires tremendous effort to reach this moment, which calls for cheers and urges onward to the destination that lies beyond. (oh, and the second launch, Steve Squyres' "Wait for it" and then the sound of the rocket--oh, did that bring back the shuttle launch in its loud and crackling fury. Doc M turned the volume up. Loud. To 11.)

And speaking of beyond, Doc M groaned in recognition when the program mentioned that though the hardware and landing software was ready to go, the software for on-Mars rover operation was not. Seven months of cruise time would see furious programming effort to finish it up. "Software's always the last thing to get finished," he said, his voice heavy with Been There Done That weight. (This said by the one who wrote some software for another mission: to map the height of most of earth's surface using radar data collected during 11 days of shuttle Endeavor's orbit around the planet in February 2000. He knit together interweaving orbit-shaped strands of data into cohesive continent-wide maps. Two years later, he was still working on the software.)

Of course, the Nova people waited until after Spirit's landing to air the Mars Dead or Alive program, showing those tense final minutes of entry, descent and landing, and the moment that the long wait for the signal that Spirit arrived safely was finally over, as Mission Control erupted in whoops and cheers and hugs.

Mars Dead of Alive was excellent; it conveyed it all, far more than I lamely wrote in my letters to the kids. I don't know how the show came across to those who didn't go to a rocket launch and a shuttle launch, to someone who doesn't live in the region near the lab and who regularly consorts with one of its engineers. Let me know. Did you see it? Did you like it?

1/10/04; 3:59:20 PM | Space | Discuss | # | |