Friday, August 31, 2012

Blue Moon for Neil Armstrong's Memorial


Ah, cosmological karma. All for Neil.

Contrary to our casual phraseology, a "Blue Moon" refers less to color of our lunar satellite than to lunar cycles, and has had many definitions throughout history. Simply put, a blue moon is a FULL MOON that is not timed to the regular monthly pattern – a "full moon" being when the Moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun, thus fully illuminated and appearing voluminously round.

Most solar years have one full moon per month, but each calendar year contains about eleven excess days in addition to those twelve cycles. These days accumulate, so that every 2.7 years, there is an extra full moon, commonly referred to as a Blue Moon.

Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone...
Prior to this modern definition, blue moons referred to an extra full moon in a three-month season, when folkloric names for each monthly moon of the Gregorian Calendar followed ecclesiastical rules. Seasonal names were assigned relative to solstices and equinoxes, largely for determining the dates of Easter and Lent. Any "extra" moon (early or late) was referred to as a blue moon, though they did not always fall in the "same month."

Are actual BLUE moons ever reported? Sure. When the moon appears to an Earthling viewer as curiously bluish in terms of tint, look around for a forest fire or recently erupted volcano. Such phenomena have been known to disperse smoke or dust particles into the atmosphere, in which cases short-wavelength light transmits blue rays into human eyes.

Of course, I'm simplifying a complex process here, so if you're really interested in the full origins and history, there’s a fantastic article over at Sky & Telescope Magazine. The explanation of a blue moon simply being the second full moon in one month is often considered a "trendy mistake" derived from an almanac published in the 1930s, but most astronomers don’t seem too terribly offended by it.

Neil Armstrong Scholarship Fund
Tonight's Blue Moon seems all the more beautiful and timely, considering that today is Neil Armstrong's private memorial in his home state of Ohio. Such a fitting cosmic coincidence for our dearly department Moonwalker.

Please also consider donating to the Neil Armstrong Scholarship Fund, founded by the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AAIA). There are options for snail-mail, telephone, internet, credit card and Paypal.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Lunar 12 - Updated


1.DECEASED: Neil Armstrong left NASA in 1971, weary from constant requests for appearances. He agreed to appear in documentaries and on key anniversaries. When he was quoted, it’s usually to remind people that while his foot was the first on the moon, thousands of space program workers put him there. Armstrong passed away August 25, 2012, at the age of 82, of complications following heart surgery.

2. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (age 82) retired from NASA in 1972 and returned to the Air Force, where he had a rocky career due to depression and alcohol problems, but recovered and went on to write or co-author two memoirs, three space history books, and two novels. Now one of the most accessible Apollo astronauts, Buzz makes public appearances all over the world and continues to promote space exploration. He even Danced With The Stars! Again.

3. DECEASED: Charles “Pete” Conrad left the space program in 1973 to become chief operating officer of American Television & Communications Corp. and later vice president of McDonnell-Douglas. He also did occasional film/TV appearances and NASA documentaries. Conrad died at age 69 from internal injuries in 1999 after a motorcycle accident in Ojai, CA. He is survived by 3 of his his 4 sons.

NASA Apollo Program
4. Alan Bean (age 80), retired from the Navy in 1975, but continued as head of the Candidate Operations and Training Group within the Astronaut Office as a civilian. He retired from NASA in 1981 to devote his life to painting in his Houston studio, re-creating his views of various Apollo space missions and even incorporating moon dust into his artworks. He has penned two memoirs, co-authored two space program histories, and also written a book about painting.

5. DECEASED: Alan Shepard, also the first American in space, retired from both the Navy and NASA in 1974, and became president of the Mercury Seven Foundation in Houston, a non-profit organization which provides college science scholarships. He also served on the boards of many corporations where he had business interests. He co-authored one book about the moon program, though no personal memoir. He died of leukemia in 1998, at the age of 74, survived by his three daughters.

6. Edgar Mitchell (age 81) retired from both the Navy and NASA in 1972 and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in Palo Alto, CA. Most recently, he also began work as Advisory Board Chairman of the Institute for Cooperation in Space. He has appeared in documentaries, written two books about science and space, and also infamously announced that NASA has secret knowledge of extra-terrestrial creatures.

The Lunar 12
7. David Scott (age 80) retired from the Navy in 1975 to serve as Director of NASA's Flight Research Center, then retired from NASA in 1977. He wrote “Two Sides of the Moon” with Russian Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space. He founded Scott Science & Technology near Manhattan Beach, CA. He commentated for British TV on the first Space Shuttle flight (STS-1) in 1981.

8. DECEASED: James Irwin left NASA and the Air Force in 1972 to found the evangelical High Flight Foundation in Colorado Springs, CO. He served as their Chairman until he died of a heart attack in 1991, at the age of 61. He was the first of the Moonwalkers to pass away, survived by his 5 children. He wrote 3 space program memoirs, one religious book and co-authored one space history book.

9. John Young (age 81), after walking on the moon in 1972, also served as commander of the STS-1 and STS-9 missions on Space Shuttle Columbia. As he had also flown two Gemini and two Apollo missions, he became the first man to fly six missions across 3 programs. He retired from NASA in 2004, after a 42-year career at JSC, still lives in Houston and makes occasional personal appearances on behalf of the space program.

Apollo Moon Landings
10. Charles Duke (76) was already a retired Air Force Reserve Brigadier General before he walked on the moon in 1972. He retired from NASA in 1975 and founded Duke Investments, Duke Enterprises and Duke Ministry for Christ, based in New Braunfels, TX. He is also chairman of the board of directors of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

11. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (77) resigned from NASA in 1975 and worked as a consultant and writer/speaker. In the late 80s, he ran for the U.S. Senate representing New Mexico, and served 6 years in Congress. In the 90s, he was professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin and also President of the Annapolis Center for Environmental Quality. He now lives in Albuquerque, NM. Schmitt claims to have taken the photograph of Earth known as "Blue Marble", one of the most popular photographic images in existence (NASA officially credits the entire Apollo 17 crew).

12. Eugene Cernan (78) was the last man to walk on the moon in 1972, hence his 1999 book, “The Last Man On The Moon.” Catchy! He retired from NASA and the Navy in 1976 and formed the Cernan Corporation in Houston. He later served as Chairman of the Board for Johnson Engineering Corp., a NASA contractor which designs space crew stations and habitats. He was once a contributor to Good Morning America, and still appears on many televisions shows, and makes personal appearances for the space program.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Neil Armstrong: Flag at Half-Staff


For the past three days, I've been trying to collect and articulate my thoughts about the passing of Neil Armstrong, but it just seems overwhelming.

In many ways, there is far too much to say, far too many things to list about this amazing explorer. In another way, there is nothing to say. Neil, as an Earthling, was known by all of humanity, regardless of borders; no writer need memorialize his accomplishments in the same way we craft other obituaries.

American flag at half staff for Neil Armstrong

My cousin has an 11-year-old son. Just out of curiosity, I asked him, "Do you know who Neil Armstrong is?" The response was immediate: "Astronaut guy!" And while he didn't know Neil's test pilot and Gemini mission details, the basics were clearly universal. Moonwalker.

Nice. But, not enough. Will upcoming generations care about the moon the way we did, those of us who watched Apollo missions with our own eyes?

The moon has a long, beautiful legacy of mystery... thousands of years' worth, in fact. Neil was the man who cleared everything up for the human species, after centuries of observation, speculation, deduction and downright wild guesses.

Greek Philosopher Anaxagoras
"Everything has a natural explanation.
The moon is not a god, but a great rock, and
the sun a hot rock." – Anaxagoras, 433 BC

Anaxagoras was right, but Neil was the one who proved it. Would they step onto the surface and sink up to their waists in moon dust? Would the space suits hold up? No one knew. Would they crash? Would they be able to return?

Richard Nixon famously had two speeches at the ready, one in case Neil landed safely, and one in case of disaster, whereby he and Buzz might be marooned on our pearly satellite.

Astronauts of the early era were the "Right Stuff" test pilot crowd, the swaggering risk-takers who were courageous (cough*cough*CRAZY*cough) enough to head into the unknown. Neil was first because he deserved to be first.

Neil Armstrong's Hometown Newspaper
Armstrong's Hometown Newspaper in Ohio

Sadly, he is the fourth moonwalker to leave us. There are eight left, and the youngest of them is 76 years old. We may not see press ripples like this one until the last is gone, but I'm sure not looking forward to the dominoes falling.

Sorry to be so sad today, and I thank all the readers here and followers on Facebook and Twitter who have shared stories and commiserated with this great loss for our entire planet.

Friday, August 24, 2012

NASA Bedrest Studies: Then And Now


Very special thanks to longtime supporter and reader, Joe Neigut, for bringing my attention to some great new videos on YouTube! I admit, I don't often "surf" that particular site unless I have a video to upload – and even then, I'm more likely to get stuck on Monty Python skits for hours ;)

Many moons ago, I featured some articles on space agency bedrest studies: one paid $100 per week in 1968; another in the same era recruited prison inmate volunteers, and both were considered early milestones in the attempt to understand effects of extended weightlessness on the human body.

Life Sciences at the Manned Spacecraft Center in 1973

This short clip shows bedrest and tilt tests, as part of a broader view into the physiological sciences that accompanied the post-Apollo and Skylab era of the space age. The entire program is available on another channel, and you can click here for Part 1 (13 minutes long) and click here for Part 2 (14 minutes long).

Current studies pay more than ten times the money now, at $1075 per week, and there are definitely no more prison volunteers allowed by NASA's modern ethics committees. Screening, of course, is also more rigorous, and psychological testing is also included. It takes a physically hardy and mentally sturdy person to withstand this particular sort of friendly quarantine, even if it looks like just "lying around".

Clip of modern NASA bedrest studies in 2011

Interestingly, even after 45 years worth of these studies, while the details have been altered in various ways via comparison control groups, the overall drill is the same: micro-gravity simulation to examine changes in bone production, muscle tissue, blood flow and plasma volume.

It's amazing to see how these studies have evolved over the years as we've tried to achieve greater accuracy and learned more about the body while trying different counter-measures.

We've come a long way!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

NASA Exercise Study for Men


Astronauts exercise on the ISS treadmill to keep their muscles and bones healthy; on the ground, "flight analog" testers use similar equipment so medical scientists can measure cardiovascular fitness. How do they simulate weightlessness? By going vertical! Some of you remember this as the "COLBERT" treadmill that will be used on the space station... named after the goofy fake-TV news host, Stephen Colbert.

Colbert Treadmill
Yesterday, I mentioned the studies website was updated with new programs, and this, the Countermeasure and Functional Testing or simply CFT 70, is the current big kahuna of studies! It is similar to iRATS , though instead of 2-3 weeks, this one will be a longer affair, with more opportunities to test out the new toys!

This is probably the best video I have ever seen in terms of how the treadmill in space works, and how they gear equipment on the ground to simulate weightlessness. The NASA Edge guys featured the original Enhanced Zero-Gravity Locomotion Simulator... the newly built one in Texas is very similar, but with "floating" capability.

Space Treadmill as Featured on NASA Edge

Co-host Blair Allen is a goofball, but highly entertaining, and he volunteered to don the space station harness to try out the treadmill. So, if you are interested in participating in this study, you can watch him undergo all the protocols.

Their show also featured more updated footage on the ISS, Peggy Whitson during training, and a description of what "weightless jogging" feels like around the 5:30 and 6:40 marks. Great stuff!

The new web site design has much more information than the older versions, complete with detailed descriptions, schedules, and photographs of the equipment used in the various trials.

NASA Space Flight Simulation Study
In the past, part of the challenge was not being able to exercise during some of these campaigns, but now exercise and comparison are built in, so they have the potential to be more fun and active, as well as useful to NASA scientists in terms of collected data.

Click on the Application Form to apply, or refer any healthy person, and tell them Pillownaut sent you! I'd love for them to know I'm still doing the Mars Cheerleader thing! ;)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Voyager 2 Voyages... for 35 years!


August has historically been a notable month for the amazing Voyager 2 probe, an unmanned spacecraft which is classified now as one of the most successful missions in history.

Voyager 2
Launched on August 20, 1977, Voyager 2 completed the Planetary Grand Tour, a rare geometric arrangement of the outer planets that occurs every 176 years. It remains the first and only craft to travel to Uranus and Neptune, learning a wealth of new information with varied scientific instruments and powerful cameras.

Voyager 1 and 2 each carried gold-plated phonograph discs, to serve as greetings for any intelligent life. Carl Sagan chaired a selection committee that created a range of scientific data for the records, also visual images, music from different cultures, samples of fifty-five languages, and sounds of nature – such as whalesong, waves, rain, thunder, birds, crickets, a train and a Saturn V rocket launch.

Golden Records
Click to see meaning of the etchings...

By 1979, it grazed the clouds of Jupiter, identifying the Great Red Spot as a mighty anti-cyclonic storm. This exciting time also saw the first close views of Europa, discovery of volcanic activity on Io, and three new Jovian satellites.

On August 25, 1981, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to the planet Saturn, probing the atmosphere to measure exact temperature and density.

Voyager 2 discovered a magnetic field and 10 previously unknown moons of Uranus, and came within 50,600 miles of the planet’s cloud cover to study the unique atmosphere, determine revolution time and examine its young ring system.

The closest approach to Neptune occurred on August 25, 1989, 20 years ago today. The probe took the first accurate measurement of the planet’s mass, and then made a close flyby of the Triton moon.

Voyager 2 path
Voyager 2 crossed into the heliosheath in October 2007, and NASA now uses Voyager 2 to explore interstellar space beyond our solar system.

As of 2009, Voyager 2 is in the constellation Telescopium (as observed from Earth), now more than 8 billion miles from our sun, and is expected to continue transmitting until about 2025.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Jon Stewart: American Hero


I would give anything to get Jon Stewart's commentary on the NASA bed rest studies. "Really, you simulate space flight by staying in bed for weeks? Are we allowed to bring blow up dolls?" He could have a field day, because even when he pokes fun at something worthwhile and useful, he finds the irony and the humor in every human journey.

We should declare Jon Stewart a National Historic Landmark. Or at least his hair.

The Daily Show with John Stewart
Stew Beef reacts to the Mars Curiosity Rover Landing...

This has to be my favorite Daily Show video clip ever, ever, ever. And that is truly saying something, considering how often he and Stephen Colbert promote space program initiatives, astronauts, exploration, space station activities and technological progress in general.

Olympic coverage? Sure, we admire America's greatest jocks! But, what about America's greatest NERDS?

I love how he combines the "7 Minutes of Terror" video with a comedy routine, and popcorn-munching anticipation. For some people, that wasn't funny at all. We were biting our nails, knowing what was at stake for the amazing people who worked on this project for a decade or more, and what it meant for the space agency as a whole. But wait... no, looking back now... it is funny. NOW.

Honestly? Even if that rover died today, and didn't move another centimeter, the feat of getting it to the surface was a shining moment in human engineering skill, and everyone who got it there could be lifelong-proud.

Jon Stewart The Daily Show
"When Mission Control got word of the successful landing,
they, in scientific terms... LOST. THEIR. $HIT."

Soon, we'll be all aglow with news of lasers, spectrometers, chemical analysis and what the heck is in those Martian rocks! Knowing those elements will give NASA scientists new understanding of how Mars formed, how wet [and possibly even Earth-like?] it once was, what changed to make it so barren... and whether it could have ever supported life.

Jon Stewart will make that sound hilarious too. Waiting. In the meantime, someone please set him up on a date with Shirley in Propulsion.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012



I'm leaping, sure. I'm arguably so over-excited about a 6-wheel drive science lab on the Red Planet, that I hope people are energized to support space exploration! Come on, even Britney Spears tweeted about the Curiosity Rover.

We have the admiration of the president, the attention of the nation -- indeed, of many nations. Can we suggest a truly renewed effort to get HUMANS to Mars?

Cowboys On Mars
Most space enthusiasts, from Neil deGrasse Tyson on PBS to anyone attending the average Star Trek Con (that would be me) can tell you the iconic "5 Greatest Challenges In Getting Humans To Mars"...
1. Need for quicker propulsion craft with less fuel
2. Long duration weightlessness causes bone and muscle deterioration
3. Radiation, radiation, radiation
4. Appetizing and non-perishable food
5. Meteoroids pummeling the spaceship along the way...

And of course, the unspoken elephant in the rooms are always the massive costs and collaboration of nations.

Curiosity Rover Mission
As to the technical difficulties, from NASA bedrest studies to Hawaii's new space food trials, from Franklin Chang-Diaz's plasma rocket to Mars500 and other analog simulations, agencies and universities all over the world are trying to tackle these problems from all angles.

I personally participated in the bed rest studies as a form of "space flight simulation", mimicking the body processes that change during weightlessness. While I appreciated the Earthbound uses for the data in terms of osteoporosis and pregnant women on bedrest, my primary reason for participating was for the sake of getting humans to planet Mars, no doubt.

The same can be said for all these bodies of research. Real-world applications? Absolutely. Yet, the primary reason they inspire and go forward is the long-term dream of planetary exploration.

Mars To Stay
Or, if you're of the "Reality Television" type, click here ;)

However you do it, support these initiatives! Even if you just comb SPACEHACK and look for a project to engage in from your laptop -- hey, tweet it, Facebook it, get the word out! Support research and support space agencies! In terms of survival and progress, they are the bet Bang For Buck the Earth has ever known...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mars Curiosity Landing Weekend


CheMin! #NASASocial! Camilla SDO! Mars Science Lab developers! Landing Party! Ames Expo! Mohawk Guy! Good Luck Peanuts! Wheels Down! Celebration!

It's all there. And more. In my Mars Curiosity Weekend Photograph Gallery... and a treasured picture album this will always be. Well, expect the part apart about being freezing cold, sitting outside in the wind until midnight, then sneezing my way through the press conference at the end.

Mars Curiosity Landing Weekend
#NASASocial & Ames Landing Party

Still, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything in the world... what a ride! Literally! What a drop! What a landing! And soon, when all the systems are tested, we will begin roving, photographing, sampling and analyzing.

Major shout-out to our Los Altos homeboy, David Blake. Having been featured in the hometown newspapers of late, we natives of the San Francisco Bay Area are all very proud of and happy for Blake, also featured recently on KQED Quest.

David Blake of NASA Ames Research Center
With David Blake in his lab

Blake spent 22 years perfecting the CheMin instruments, now safely landed on Mars. His devices should tell us all we need to know about conditions for life, and possible past life on the Red Planet!

Events at the NASA Ames Research Center included booths, toys, lectures, and NASA TV feeds on two giant screens at either of the parade grounds. It was cold. It was windy. It was nerve-wracking. However, I didn't see anyone bail. Everyone hung on until nearly midnight, watching the commentary, signals, landing and ensuing celebrations and tests. Unfortunately, it was too dark to take pictures by the time we had something to celebrate... so it was hard to "see" all the jubilation, but I will never forget the sound of it!

Full-size Rover MSL
At the Ames Expo booths prior to evening landing

Many folks at all the 6 NASA Socials and major Landing Parties at JPL, Ames, KSC, JSC, Goddard, Glen and Langley met tons of designers, engineers, builders, testers, drivers, mission controllers and launch crew who sent to her to Mars. Seems like just about all these chaps have groupies and disciples now, particularly if they are busy on Twitter, where they accrued thousands of followers almost overnight! So far, my favorite is Master of Mars, Adam Steltzner.

Flight Controller Bobak Ferdowsi
Mohawk Guy!

All the attention must be blowing their minds! But wow, I don't think anyone is more shocked than poor Flight Director Bobak Ferdowsi. He must think he is in the Twilight Zone, or something. Really, even after all the style variables on the native American warrior 'do in the 1980s, basic mohawk haircuts can still cause this much of a ruckus?! I picture people stopping him in the grocery store now, "Hey, you're Mohawk Man from NASA TV." Surreal.

Ah well, enjoy it while you can. This is the moment for everyone who worked on MSL over the years, at every NASA center, to shine! Click on any of the pictures above, or click here to see the entire MSL Landing Weekend gallery over at Pillownaut Picasa.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Because This Is What Inspiration Looks Like


I almost pulled an Apollo-Nixon speech-writing routine on this event. I always plan and begin writing blog posts days or even weeks ahead. While preparing for MSL events, I thought, "Perhaps I should prepare two blog posts... one for if it lands safely and roves, and one for if it crashes and we are all devastated and mourning."

We don't have a great record against Mars. But then I thought... no. This is a moment to trust the brains behind the hardware, and hold to the credible hope that a positive outcome would be momentous if it was the only one expected.

The celebration of Mars Curiosity's triumphant EDL was then even more amazing than any of us had dared to imagine. Everything that could have gone right, went right. Every sign and signal expected, came. Everyone who worked on this magnificent mission of space exploration can be proud, choked up, relieved and sleepless-for-days jubilant! And millions of us who have been following this mission for years can finally say we are on the fourth rock from the sun:

Send Your Name To Mars
I enjoyed seeing the sci-fives and hugs at the lead center, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, though I was happy and grateful to watch from NASA Ames Research Center -- which hosted one of the largest landing parties on Earth! By the time the EDL was in progress, more than 7,000+ people had congregated near Moffett Field in California. The cheer that rose from that crowd when we knew Curiosity had landed safely was absolutely EPIC!

Say what you want about us crazy Yanks, but we work longer hours and take fewer vacations than any culture in the world. Our failures are sometimes acute, but unlike many other space agencies, we've never tried to hide them or keep them secret. We do it all in public, for better or for worse. Our successes have been grand, and at times that makes our exhibitionism a point of national pride.

This is one of those times. Love us or hate us, we attempt huge endeavours, and our finales are blaring loud. Now, I know there are always going to be naysayers who do not understand that their entire lifestyles are dependent upon space programs. There will always be people who think space is a waste of money, and here is why they will always, always be wrong:

Because this is what INSPIRATION looks like...

NASA JPL Mission Control
Because this is how PIONEERS do it...

Curiosity Rover Lands on Mars
Because this is how HARD WORK and SUCCESS feel...

Mars Science Laboratory Mission Control celebration
Because this is how LEADERS OF WORLDS behave.

Tweet from President Barack Obama about Mars Curiosity
Some people were more dignified than others ;)

As a nation, nobody else knocks it out of the park quite like we do, and yes, I used a baseball analogy right there on purpose. When you lead the way through inspiring intellectual feats, you stimulate everything from hearts to minds to education to science to commerce to GNP to peace.

All told, there were 127 landing parties all over the globe for this event, in the United States and 15 other countries.

NASA Television had a record number of viewers. went DOWN. Ustream froze. Live data feeds tanked due to the onslaught of online demand. The world watched. Together. And believe it or not, the fun has just barely begun...!

Friday, August 3, 2012

NASA Ames Social


Back at the Cathedral of Flow! Yes, NASA Ames, land of the Wind Tunnels.

The last awesome event at Ames Research Center (ARC) centered around Kepler, but this time, it's all about the Mars Curiosity Rover!

Ames from the Air, from my Cessna Skyhawk Tour!

As per my description of all the onboard science equipment and the EDL sequence for the newest and largest-ever Mars rover, much of the design came from ARC!

Ames engineers conducted a full-scale MSL parachute deployment, small-scale verification tests, as well as supersonic tests to study the interaction between the MSL Capsule and parachute during atmospheric entry. All tested in the famed Supersonic Wind Tunnels... and rumor has it we may get to see one.

We are beginning bright and early today, and will start by hooking up with the other 5 NASA socials being held today in various NASA field centers. The lead center for the Mars Science Laboratory events will be the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California.

Mars Curiosity Rover Patch
Mission Emblem & Pins, designed by Susan Bell

To follow along throughout the weekend, see the NASA Television Schedule for engineering and science briefings, live streams from the media socials, the Sunday landing, and recaps up until August 10th. Our sturdy MSL buddy should be roving madly by then, and taking all manner of awesome panoramic pictures near Gale Crater.

For my and Team Camilla's updates, you can follow @Pillownaut, @Camilla_SDO and @acwynn!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Fourth Rock From The Sun


As of late yesterday, the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) sequence for Mars Curiosity has begun! As MSL prepares for landing on or solar system's "Fourth Rock", it's a good time to learn about what it will be doing on the surface for the next two years!

Well, it's expected to last two years... though with its nuclear power source fueled by plutonium-238, it could conceivably last a decade. I hope.

NASA MSL Press Kit
Click for Mars Curiosity Rover Press Kit

Behold the miniature laboratory! The Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity Rover, comes with advanced sensors and experimentation equipment, laser, a 7-foot-long robotic arm, and 17 cameras!

NASA Engineers and project managers compiled a beautiful 60-page Press Kit for MSL that contains an overview of planet Mars, MSL mission objectives, history of Mars exploratory treks, Curiosity's landing site and EDL breakdown, and a complete -- one might even say exhaustive -- description of all onboard instruments.

Absolutely worth the read...

Camilla in the clean room
Camilla SDO visits the Curiosity Clean Room

Here are the major highlights, wildly, wildly condensed:

• MSL Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrument (MEDLI):
Engineers from Ames & Langley collaborated to design and build sophisticated plugs with multiple temperature sensors that measure atmospheric conditions and performance of the heat shield.

• Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA): Ames researchers invented the unique thermal protection system consisting of tiles that the MSL spacecraft will use to safely reach the Martian surface.

• Parachute: Ames engineers conducted a full-scale MSL parachute deployment, small-scale verification tests, as well as supersonic tests to study the interaction between the MSL Capsule and parachute during atmospheric entry. All tested in the NASA Ames wind tunnels.

Mars Science Laboratory
• Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin): Ames scientists developed this definitive mineralogy instrument to identify and quantify the minerals in Martian rocks and soils, delivered by the, robotic arm shovel, otherwise known as the Sample Acquisition, Sample Processing and Handling (SA/SPaH) system.

• MSL InterfaCE (MSLICE): JPL and Ames engineers developed this software tool to plan the science activities of the Mars rover and maximize scientific research.

Live inside the Mars Rover clean room (2011)

Also on board:

• Spectrometers:
Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam), Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (inside the CheMin), Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite

• Radiation Detectors:

Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN)

• Environmental Sensors:
Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS)

• Atmospheric Sensors:
Mars Science Laboratory Entry Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI)

Cost? $2.5 billion. Oh baby, you'd better not crash...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mars Curiosity: Big Deal!


Mars Curiosity is a big deal. In fact, in terms of the chronological history of all Mars exploration hardware, it's the biggest!

Spirit/Oppy Rover model, Sojourner and Curiosity

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), built at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is 2.7 metres long (8.8 feet) and weighs in at 900 kilograms, or just under 1 ton. About 80kg of that bulk is an array scientific instruments (that I will describe in tomorrow's post).

The last two Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), Spirit and Opportunity, were each 1.57 metres and weighed 174 kilograms, each with about 7kg of instruments.

Rover Sojourner? The baby of the bunch, at 10.6kg...roughly the size of your microwave oven.

Historic Space Craft website
The Apollo LRV or Lunar Roving Vehicle, is truly the only space auto that matches Curiosity for size. Used for moon driving on Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions, the battery-powered LRV was 3 metres long, though considerably lighter than MSL at a bouncy 210kg.

Curiosity, in comparison to past robots, could truly be considered the first "Mega-Rover" of the American space program. As the largest and most complex mobile science lab designed to visit another planet, MSL will attempt to determine if planet Mars ever had or still has any environmental conditions favorable to supporting life and search for clues in the terrain about possible past microbial life.

Note, that is somewhat different and more precise an objective than some of the spurious claims in the press about how Curiosity is "searching for life on Mars".

Mars Curiosity on Twitter
Only a few more days to go now before the mega-rover touches down! Curiosity's target will be a small landing ellipse at Gale Crater near the Martian equator. MSL, if not blown off course, will land near the base of Aeolis Mons, also often called "Mount Sharp", in Aelois Palus.

Curiosity is currently scheduled to land at approximately 1:31 am EDT Aug. 6 (10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5)... and even the dual LED large screens in New York's Time Square will be carrying the NASA TV feed live!