Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A special post for Bill and Bruce

I was sitting in the Davis train station waiting for my train home, typing a summary of today's Science Discussion, when an old friend sat down across from me.  Bill Cotton!  A retired conductor and "legend of the Amtrak line", Bill knew everyone by name and still remembers most of us regular riders.  He said he is meeting Bruce, another conductor, tomorrow.  Bruce and I talked a lot about Mars when I first became part of the MastCam/MAHLI/MARDI camera team for Curiosity.  I gave Bill my blog address and asked him to pass it on to Bruce.  After talking a bit more, I said I'd add a link to the great images in the JPL press releases, so here it is, Bill:  It's so great to have run into you!

Now it's back to that summary of today's Science Discussion, with an even bigger smile on my face!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

Engineers Talk EDL

I don't normally pay attention to GQ (the magazine, not another NASA acronym), but here's something you want to read:  It's some of the MSL engineers reminiscing about Curiosity's landing.  Each adds their own take as they reconstruct the events.  It was an amazing night!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dawn on Charlotte Talks, My NPR Interview

Curiosity's hand print in the soil of a wheel scuff.  The imprint is from the APXS instrument, which measured the elements (e.g. Si, Al, Mg, Fe, etc.) in the soil.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of going to the annual Geological Society of America meeting in Charlotte, NC.  I presented our preliminary geological map of the Curiosity landing area in Gale Crater, Mars.

Thanks to Justin Samuel, of GSA, I was invited to record an hour-long NPR show with Mike Collins of Charlotte Talks.  It was great fun!  Here's the link: Mars Rover

Joy Cooke already posted a comment on the show asking if I encourage young students to pursue science (Thanks Joy!) - I do, but informally.  I try to share my experiences, but right now, I am almost entirely focused on making sure we use the rover for the best scientific purpose possible.  It's such a capable - and complicated - rover, that we have to have people dedicated to making all of the daily decisions on what to do - down to planning seconds, looking for swapped numbers, making tough choices about what to throw out of plans, etc.

For example, if a command has an error, it can put an instrument in an unsafe state. We then have to evaluate

  1. what happened, 
  2. whether or not any damage was done, 
  3. which data stored on Curiosity we need to request to diagnose the problem,
  4. how to fix the problem, 
  5. how to make up for the things Curiosity didn't do because of the error,
  6. how to change all the commands we were prepared to send to the rover (and make sure there aren't any new errors!)
  7. how to change the plan for the next day, 
  8. how to prepare for the Thanksgiving weekend (when most people actually get a holiday), and
  9. how to keep the problem from happening again
Yesterday, I worked over 12 hours on planning for the next few days plus Thanksgiving observations, and I wasn't the only one!  There were dozens of us.  

Eventually, we get to actually look at the amazingly cool data and learn something about Mars.  Often, the public has more time to look at the beautiful images than the people on the team!  I hope that all people of all ages can enjoy the sense of exploration, adventure, and discovery provided by the Curiosity rover!  It is an amazing international collaboration that people across the world can and should be proud of!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Self Portrait of Curiosity!

We used MAHLI, the Mars Hand Lens Imager, to image Curiosity on Mars!  MAHLI is on the end of the arm, so to take the self portrait, we had to command the arm to move to a couple of dozen different places, pointing MAHLI precisely.  Several team members spent hours and hours preparing the sequence of images, testing it on Curiosity's Earth-bound twin, and then implementing it on Curiosity.  The result is spectacular, even in low resolution thumbnail mode!

Analyzing Mars

In the last week, we announced results from both of our large analytical instruments on Curiosity.

CheMin characterized the mineralogy of dust and sand at the site called Rocknest.  CheMin uses x-ray diffraction patterns to measure the spacing between atoms in crystals, which are diagnostic of specific minerals.  Some of the CheMin team members have been working for more than 2 decades to get x-ray diffraction on Mars!  This first sample analysis is a spectacular achievement.

Similarly, SAM characterized the composition of the martian atmosphere.  The SAM team looked for methane, a trace gas that some have suggested is present based on observations from Earth and a Mars orbiter.  However, those detections have been very controversial.  The SAM team announced that they did not detect martian methane in the atmosphere.  SAM did, however, refine estimates of the amount of 13C versus 12C in carbon dioxide as well as the concentration and isotopic ratios of argon.  These results are critical for understanding the history of the martian atmosphere, in particular why it is thin and how much of it might have been lost to space over the last several billion years.

SAM has not yet analyzed the dust and sand that CheMin has analyzed.  Those analyses are in the works and will represent another important milestone for our mission.

On a personal note, I'm heading to the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.  There is a special session on results from the Mars Science Laboratory, and I'll be presenting our geological map on Monday morning.  It will be great to share our results with our colleagues!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Jake, Glenelg, and Mugearite

Here is a great blog about the fun of names on Mars, particularly the rock named Jake.  

We name things on the MSL mission because it's easier to understand someone when they say "Jake" rather than "That rock we analyzed on sol, hummm, maybe sol 48.  The one that looked like a pyramid."  

Geologists do this with formations (groups of rocks) on Earth all the time.  Almost all formation names on Earth are taken from nearby places, a tradition also codified by official naming organizations such as the International Stratigraphic Commission.  We are now doing it on Mars, but we have to name the places before we can name the rocks.  

We're bootstrapping our way on the naming business.  First, we identified interesting geological formations on Earth that have the same name as a city with a population of <100,000 people.  We can then follow International Astronomical Union naming conventions and name a small crater after the city.  We then name the quad (a ~1.2 x 1.2 km2 area) containing the crater after the crater, which is named after the city, which has the same name as the geological formation, which is named after a place where the formation is found, which is named after a person, another place, or whatever it reminded the namer of...  This naming approach provides a very rich history from which people can make all sorts of interesting connections!  

I have to admit that the fact that we found mugearite on the way to Glenelg, both ultimately linked name-wise to the Isle of Skye, does seem like a "cosmic coincidence!"

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Curiosity Scarecrow Rover

Yesterday, the shuttle Endeavor was delivered to LA.  It flew over a number of key areas in the state, including the Golden Gate Bridge, NASA Ames, Disneyland, and JPL.  Needless to say, many people at JPL wanted to see it.  We piled out of our meetings and chose a place with a good view of the sky.  Since JPL is built on the Sierra Madre Fault scarp, everywhere that isn't behind a tall building has a good view.  I chose to go to the Mars Yard - the place the rover drivers test the mobility of the "scarecrow" rover.  When the rover Opportunity got stuck in the sand on Mars, this is where the rover drivers spent a month studying how many wheel turns would be needed to get her unstuck - and it worked!

The Curiosity Scarecrow consists of the same suspension system as the real rover, but lacks all of the instruments.  One of the rover drivers decided that Curiosity Scarecrow also wanted to watch the shuttle fly over.  Thus, he drove her out, over some rocks, and into the center of the yard.  I took some good video of the rover and posted a cut version here:  

It was great to see the Curiosity Scarecrow creeping around - and going over some very interesting obstacles!

(My video and photos of the shuttle flyover aren't worth posting.)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Finding the Path

Today was a great day.  It was the first of four sols (martian days) that I am assigned to the tactical Long Term Planner (LTP) role, which means I attend meetings and am generally responsible for communicating LTP decisions to the relevant people.  

It was also a hard day.  The team has been working hard to find the right order and timing of activities over the next few sols.  The LTPs have been making sol trees showing the various choices, considering the engineering constraints, and trying to optimize the outcomes of various necessary activities.  The decisions were so complicated that we have had more than two significant plan revisions per sol for several sols.  We finally found the right order for things just in time for solorrow (tomorrow's sol)!  We knew it was right when each person we consulted provided more insights that supported the new plan rather than requiring changes.  Whew!  

At the end of my shift, after writing my notes, I send an e-mail updating a number of people on the new plan for Sol 19 (solorrow).  One of the instrument Principle Investigators thanked me for my patience, and here is my response:

I don't feel like it was so much patience as finally feeling the path under our feet.  In the late 1980's, I went on a hike up Mt. Baldy (just to the east of us here in Pasadena) and started to watch the sunset from the top with some friends.  Then we realized that none of us had flashlights.  We ran down as fast as we could with the remaining daylight.  Then it got dark and we got to a wooded area.  We lost the trail.  I stayed in place while my friends when off in different directions looking for the trail.  My philosophy was that I must be really close to the trail as one can't go very far off the trail in the dark.  It turned out that it was only a foot to my right.  Today was like that.  We've been running around, trying to find the right path.  Suddenly, things came together, and we got back on it.  There is still a lot of work to get down off the mountain, but we have a plan that will keep us moving forward.  I really like days like today...

For my next birthday, soon after that mountain trip, my dad gave me a day pack with a matching flashlight.  I've almost always had a flashlight with me since then.

And reading my response now, I think I should say "There is still a lot of work to get to the mountain" since Curiosity is not yet even at the base of the trail up.  Mt. Sharp is beautiful and it calls my spirit of adventure!

HazCam mosaic of Curiosity's shadow and Mt. Sharp.
Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Friday, August 17, 2012

First Day Off...

I took my first day off in almost 3 weeks!  I actually did a bit of work first thing in the morning, but then I managed not to read my Curiosity-related e-mail all the rest of the day.  I managed this by sticking to places with low bandwidth!

On my day off, I:
1) paid my bills and went to the bank;
2) did some UCD-related work;
3) went shopping - I found what will be my favorite store: El Super.  It has all sorts of interesting foods, including fresh garbanzo beans (a first for me) and a dozen corn tortillas for 39 cents!
4) slept
5) read Solaris by Stanislaw Lem - Science Fiction seems appropriate to read right now!
6) cooked a stew of buffalo, onions, poblano peppers, anaheim peppers, bell peppers, fresh garbanzo beans, zucchini, and spices including two types of dried chili.
7) cleaned house
8) failed to get my car smog checked - only a minor problem; all the places were too busy, and I had groceries in the trunk.

I spent most of the day in my apartment, which is charming.

The "dining"room.  The front door is down the stairs on the left.  The kitchen is to the right.

My living room couch is a TV stand covered with a camping pad and a Pendleton blanket.  The pillows provide the back.  It is surprisingly confortable, and I've actually even fallen asleep on it once!
I almost always end up sitting in this rocking chair, looking out to the NNW.  The chair is comfortable, and the view is amazing!  I have a large table-like desk to the left, where I also end up working.  However, my wireless connection isn't very good, so I end up doing e-mail, etc. in the walking closet next to a window there!
The view from my rocking chair.  This is looking out to the mountains just north of Malibu.  I don't know their name.  Catalina Island is often visible, but is almost entirely encased in the "marine layer" clouds in this image.  Griffith Park is behind the tree on the left.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Be on Mars!

There are some very cool martian toys available that can give you a real sense of being with Curiosity on Mars.  First, you need to know what time it is, so you should get a Mars24 Sunclock.  When MSL is in the dark, we're hard at work!

Next, you can land with Curiosity at Eyes on the Solar System by choosing "replay".  Then there's the "LIVE Mode" button that you can use to follow along on our mission!  The simulation that you see was scripted before landing and was only 0.6 seconds off in time.  They didn't get exactly the right landing site, though.  This will be corrected in the next week or so.  I think that the site will follow Curiosity during the entire mission!  What fun!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Quad 51: Yellowknife

I had a bit of fun yesterday...  I participated in a JPL press conference, and I was supposed to describe our mapping work on the team, which I've been co-chairing with John Grant. Fred Calef is doing all the hard work.  This effort has been going on for about a month before landing.  We solicited volunteers from the science team to each map a 1.3x1.3 km quad in or near the landing ellipse.  The volunteers submitted their maps, and we've been integrating them into a single map.  In our mission work, we are refining our efforts and developing models for how the different rock types formed.  It's been an amazingly fun project.

In addition to describing the mapping effort, I was going to announce the name of the quad we landed in - it happened to be one of the ones I mapped.  However, at the last minute, we decided to postpone the announcement.  Thus, I talked about Quad 51.  No one on the team had noticed - or at least said anything - about this coincidence.  Immediately, the press, however, picked up on "Area 51".  We landed in Area 51!  Total coincidence!

The name Yellowknife was announced after the press conference.  That now has people running around explaining why we chose Yellowknife, which I had planned to do in the press conference!  So here's a bit about why:

For the Geologists:  The Yellowknife Supergroup consists of rocks that are about 2.7 billion years old.  They form a greenstone belt (Sasha and the UCD Geology Club - they include one schist, two schist, green schist, but no blue schist.) that overlies the oldest rocks in the world, the 4.98 billion year old Acasta Gneiss.

For the Historians and Geologists, who are after all, historians of the earth:  Yellowknife is the largest town in the Northwest Territories with a population of a little less than 20,000 people.  It is named after the Yellowknife Dene who live in the area and used to make knives out of copper.  In the 1930's, Yellowknife was a gold and uranium boom town, and in the 1990's it was the center of a diamond rush.  Many geologists and arctic explorers go through Yellowknife on their way north.  Thus, the town holds many interesting memories for a number of people on the team, including John Grotzinger, the Project Scientist, who is the one who chose the name.

Congratulations to Yellowknife!

Back to the topic of Area 51: The team loves it, as do the engineers.  In today's press conference, one of them talked about all the strange things that happened in Quad 51.  It couldn't have been better!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Great Mashup Video of Landing

Watch and enjoy!

During landing, I was watching the plot of doppler shifts for Curiosity's tones, sent direct to earth.  The doppler shift says how fast the spacecraft was moving relative to earth.  I saw a sudden drop in doppler shift, just before they announced the parachute deploy - it was dramatic!  I knew immediately that the parachute was doing something because nothing else would slow down the decent that quickly.  Once earth set behind the crater rim, we no longer had a signal and relied on Odyssey for all "real-time" data.  That's one of the reasons there was so much cheering when we heard that Odyssey and Curiosity were talking.

Science, Science, Science!

The first MAHLI image came down!  This is our microscopic imager that can also focus at a distance.  This image was taken through the dust cover of MAHLI, and we kicked up a lot of dust on landing.  Thus, the image is not as sharp as we will see later in the mission.  However, it is really beautiful and reminds me of the Smokey Mountains!  Although the color is different - and this is true color, taken with an RGB imaging chip!  Welcome to Mars, the Red Planet - or maybe orangey-yellow planet.  Just wait until we get that dust cover off or the first pictures with the color MastCams!

Ken Edgett describing the first MAHLI image from Curiosity.  You can see a distinctive peak on the crater rim!  This image reminds me of the Smokey Mountains!  Although the color is a bit different - Welcome to Mars, the Red Planet!  From AP Photo.

The science efforts are really heating up.  We've been working on mapping the geology and geomorphology of Curiosity's landing area using data from orbiters.  These data are amazing!  And when you have a hundred people looking at the same areas, lots of observations get made.  I've worked with several others to compile maps made by ~20 volunteers.  We are now at the stage of identifying better units for one of the particularly interesting rock types.  We'll have a detailed discussion about how we want to map that unit starting at 1 am!  It's absolutely fantastic!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Color Movie of Landing on Mars

The MARDI camera took the very first movie of landing on Mars, and we got more than 100 thumbnail images back from it this morning.  It's in color!  We'll have higher resolution soon!

We're there! And now it's time for SCIENCE

We landed!  It couldn't have been better or more successful!  Nothing (!!!) went wrong, except the A/V system in the Science Discussion room was stuck in "show NASA TV" mode from the landing.  We could still talk, though!

I finished my shift as Long Term Planner at 9:30 in the morning.  I went home and immediately fell asleep for 9 long hours.  I woke up just in time to watch the sunset.  In reading my e-mail, I've learned that we got a lot more data while I was out.  I'm eager to get back in, see where we landed, and dive back into the science.

UCDavis compiled a list of links to media coverage of me, which Louise sent around.  Here's that list:

Outlet: BBC News
Title: Gale Crater: Geological 'sweet shop' awaits Mars rover
Publication Date: 08/03/2012
Summary: BBC News interviews geology professor Dawn Sumner about the Mars rover mission: "I am confident we will learn amazing new things. Some of them will be answers to questions we already have, but most of what we learn will be surprises to us."
Unique Visitors Per Month: 8,696,910

Outlet: Nature
Title: Crater Mound a Prize and Puzzle for Mars Rover
Publication Date: 08/03/2012
Summary: Many researchers have differing theories regarding the formation of the mysterious Mount Sharp on Mars, but Dawn Sumner is not concerned with these differences. "That's what the mission is for," she says. "We have a million different opinions among 250 people."
Unique Visitors Per Month: 1,862,094

Outlet: Sacramento Bee
Title: Mars Rover Success Could Lift Future Missions
Publication Date: 08/05/2012
Summary: The Sacramento Bee interviews Dawn Sumner about the Mars rover mission: "It will be an adrenaline rush, but I tend to be an optimist." As co-investigator, Sumner is in charge of culling information from data sent back from the rover. "We will be looking for rocks that are 3 billion years old," she said.
Unique Visitors Per Month: 1,158,680

Outlet: Sacramento Bee
Title: Video: UC Davis Professor Dawn Sumner Speaks About the Mars Rover Mission
Publication Date: 08/05/2012
Summary: Before the Mars rover "Curiosity" landed on the planet Sunday night, UC Davis professor Dawn Sumner discussed its mission and landing.
Unique Visitors Per Month: 1,158,680

Outlet: Davis Enterprise
Title: UC Davis Scientist Prepares for Mars Rover Landing
Publication Date: 08/05/2012
Summary: Geology professor Dawn Sumner will spend the first four "Martian" days as the "long-term planner" of the Mars rover team, coordinating the first scientific interpretations of what is seen when the rover lands and helping make daily decisions about Curiosity's activities.
Unique Visitors Per Month: 17,332

Outlet: KCOP-TV
Title: Fox News at 11
Air Date: 08/05/2012
Summary: Fox 11 was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California where UC Davis geologist Dawn Sumner celebrated the successful Mars rover landing with her colleagues and discussed the mission's purpose.
Nielsen Audience: 32,410

Outlet: Hearst Television Inc.
Title: KCRA News
Air Date: 08/06/2012
Summary: Dawn Sumner was among the many viewers watching the Mars rover landing on Sunday night, preparing for her next four days of crucial work to uncover the scientific meaning of the rover's discoveries.
Nielsen Audience: 14,594

Outlet: Capital Public Radio
Title: Mars Rover Will Have UC Davis Professor at Controls
Publication Date: 08/02/2012
Summary: Dawn Sumner was picked for her position on the Mars mission because of her experience searching for life forms in Antarctica, the place on earth that may be most like Mars. Speaking with CPR, Sumner says the evidence of life her team is looking for is very, very small.
Unique Visitors Per Month: 16,016

Outlet: Planet Save
Title: Mars Rover Curiosity Will Explore Strange Crater
Publication Date: 08/05/2012
Summary: NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity is set to land on Mars and explore Mount Sharp, a 5.5-km-tall mound of layered sediments that time and pressure have squeezed into a mountain of rock, strangely located in the center of the large Gale crater. Dawn Sumner refers to it as a "scientific enigma."
Unique Visitors Per Month: 31,686

Outlet: Dawn on Mars (Professor Sumner's personal blog)
Title: How to do Science with 300+ Team Members and a Rover on Another Planet
Publication Date: 08/05/2012
Summary: Geology professor Dawn Sumner has written a blog post describing her work with the Mars rover "Curiosity" and the purpose of their mission.
Unique Visitors Per Month: N/A

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How to do Science with 300+ Team Members and a Rover on Another Planet

Space missions are special. They take hundreds of people cooperating over many years toward a common goal of success.  It’s a complicated process.  MSL is my first mission, and this is my perspective of how the process works.

There are innumerable interesting scientific questions one can ask about Mars, ranging from how it formed to how it has changed through time geologically to how it has changed through time climatically to the potential existence of life.  The first step in any mission is deciding which of those questions to investigate.  To help guide those decisions, NASA sponsors the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG).  In addition to other activities, MEPAG maintains a document that outlines the science community’s consensus on the most important scientific questions to address in relationship to understanding Mars.  Any scientist interested in Mars can participate in MEPAG meetings and provide feedback to this “Goals Document”.  Based on the highest priority science investigations, NASA then commissions working groups to study particular mission types, for example an orbiter, a rover, or sample return.  They include evaluations of whether or not the desired science investigations are technically feasible and financially realistic.  Once potential missions are well enough defined, they are evaluated in the context of all of NASA’s planetary science missions by a committee established by the National Research Council.  This committee produces a “Decadal Survey” document, which outlines what NASA should plan for and accomplish within the field of planetary sciences in the next 10+ years.  If funding is available, the NASA Planetary Sciences Subdivision is required to take the appropriate steps to implement technology development, fundamental research, and missions with the priorities provided in the Decadal Survey.  

When a mission to Mars of a certain type and with general scientific goals is a high priority in the Decadal Survey, NASA commissions a large number of studies to define what is technically possible, what is scientifically reasonable, and what fits within the “budget wedge”, e.g. how much money per year over the next decade can be expected minus the amount per year that is already committed for other missions.  Eventually, a mission emerges that is defined by more specific scientific goals. A call for proposed instruments is released to the science community.  This call lays out what types of observations need to be made, how much money is available, limits on the power and weight for instruments, and many more technical details.  In the case of MSL, the call for instrument proposals included a call for imaging instruments (e.g. cameras).  Malin Space Science Systems proposed to build and operate several cameras, and I was on one of those proposals.  Once the proposals are submitted to NASA, a committee of experts evaluates each class of instrument and chooses those that they think are the best for the money and can actually be built - there are many instruments we want that are just too difficult to build so that they can be light enough and low power enough to go on a rover AND work at freezing Mars temperatures AND actually produce good results.  When the proposals are chosen, the selected teams get money to implement what they promised.  Our camera proposal was chosen.  
Problems come up.  Problems are solved.  Designs are changed.  Things are removed.  Things are added.  It has taken 8 years to go from the selection of proposals to the launch of MSL!  (It was actually delayed by 2 years due to some technical problems that emerged in the detailed design, implementation, and testing of the rover.)  

While the engineers are building the rover and instruments, the scientists are learning what the instruments can do, calibrating them, choosing where to land, dreaming up new hypotheses to test, etc.  Many individuals on the team are both engineers and scientists - they have a scientific question that they build an instrument to address, or they build an instrument and find science questions that can be addressed by their analyses.  Other team members are one or the other.  The thing we all share is a focus on mission success.  If the instruments fail, the scientists don’t get their data.  If there weren’t interesting science questions, the engineers wouldn’t have a cool rover to design, build, and test.  
We are now at that critical point where everything changes.  The hardware is all built and about to land on Mars.  The goal on MSL now is to operate the rover and its instruments as productively as possible on another planet.  Curiosity is a robot; every single action is controlled by software.  The software is designed to do some things on its own, like Entry, Decent, and Landing (EDL).  It has to be able to do that autonomously because, right now, it takes 14 minutes for a signal to go from Earth to Mars.  It only takes 7 minutes to land.  Thus, we can’t help Curiosity during EDL; she has to do it on her own.  However, once Curiosity is on the surface of Mars, things can go more slowly.  The team on Earth can decide what to have the rover do, and we can send commands up asking her to do different things each day.  

Putting the daily commands for Curiosity together is now our focus - this is called Operations.  Four times per martian day (called a sol), one of two orbiters around Mars will talk to Curiosity.  In the martian afternoon, the orbiters will receive data from Curiosity and in the martian morning, they will provide commands to Curiosity (and receive more data).  These data include the health of the rover, various essential engineering details, and scientific results.  As soon as these data are relayed back to Earth, the science and engineering teams pore over all the details.  If something is wrong with the rover, Tiger Teams are assembled to figure out what is actually wrong and how to fix it.  If nothing is seriously wrong, the science team uses the new data to plan observations for Curiosity to make the following sol.  Every single observation has to be requested.  For example, if you want to know if there is a rock nearby, you have to ask for a picture and wait a sol (or more) for that picture to come back and then look at it.  Since we need to know where we are, images are taken very frequently.  If we want to know the composition of that rock, it takes more planning.  If we have an image, we know where the rock is, and the ChemCam instrument can then be used to vaporize a bit of the rock with its laser.  It takes another sol to vaporize the rock and get that information back.  If we want more detailed results from the APXS instrument on the rover arm, the scientists have to decide where on the rock they want to analyze.  Then the engineers have to figure out how to move every joint on the arm to get the APXS instrument to that position safely.  If it can work, the scientists and engineers work together to make the detailed software commands that tell Curiosity how many turns of each motor and in what order to move for the instrument to end up safely in the right spot and then make the analysis.  Once everything is proofread and any new commands are tested on the twin rover in the “Mars Yard” at JPL, the commands are sent to Curiosity to execute.  As you can imagine, this takes time!

Every single sol, the engineers and scientists go through this process - making sure the rover is safe, deciding what to have Curiosity do, writing the commands that will be executed, proofreading them many times, and sending them off.  We call these “tactical” activities.  We have roughly 16 hours between the time we get data from Curiosity until it’s time to send up the next set of commands.  It takes a lot of people to do this well!  And the team will be doing it every sol for one Mars year (~2 Earth years)!

As you can imagine, it is easy to get caught up in the details.  However, we have those big science questions that NASA used to define the mission.  The mission has to address those questions; it has to stay on track and not spend all of its time looking at everything that might be interesting.  Thus, there is a management structure for “strategic” planning.  The people who led the instrument teams and a few people appointed by NASA make up a committee that sets the strategic timeline for the mission.  For MSL, the long-term goal is to investigate the rocks that make up Mount Sharp in Gale Crater.  Thus, the committee might give the guideline that the rover can characterize a particular set of rocks for 3 sols, but then has to move toward the main science target.  The tactical planning then has some long-term structure.

My first job in operations is as a Long Term Planner (LTP).  A LTP is assigned to work with the tactical process each sol.  Their job is to make sure the tactical process is consistent with the strategic guidelines.  For example, the LTP would intervene if the tactical planning started a set of analyses that would take 5 sols, but Curiosity was supposed to be moving on in 3 sols.  The LTP also makes sure that important discoveries made by team members during the tactical process get incorporated into the strategic plans.  For example, if those 5 sols of analyses were in response to the discovery of a new feature that was really important for the science goals, the LTP would make sure the guiding committee knew about the discovery, possibly suggesting modifications to the strategic plan.  In addition, the LTPs facilitate scientific discussions and interpretations.  After the activities for the next sol are chosen, the LTP leads a Science Discussion during which team members share the discoveries of the sol, plus discuss interpretations of data, new scientific hypotheses, possible investigations that should go into the strategic plans, etc.  This is a place for heated debates, consensus building, and new insights.  Finally, the LTPs are responsible for keeping track of many details such as things that got forced off the tactical plan due to power or time constraints but are really important, the names of sites and features, etc.  

It’s a great job!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Greg says I'm famous...

One of my former students sent me an e-mail today with the subject line "now you're famous".  He found me in photo 3 on this web site.  It's actually a picture of John Grotzinger (Project Scientist) from the news conference announcing the choice of landing sites more than a year ago.  I do look impressed with what he's saying - or maybe with his strength at being able to hold up the rover at chest height with one hand.  Greg was exaggerating.

But here is the UCDavis news release from today (video filmed late last week), which might make me wildly famous among my friends:

The text for the UCD news release is here and Capital Public Radio did a short news item after an interview with me.

I also talked to Nature reporter Eric Hand today.  He will be blogging science news from the mission.  Keep an eye out for discussions of Gale geology here.

ADDITION:  Eric's news item is really nice!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Multimedia Extravaganza! Including William Shatner!

Okay, so William Shatner is my favorite narrator!  Just watch this video!  It doesn't get any better, ever!  (Except maybe his recital of Sara Palin's speech...)  Maybe Wil Wheaton is pretty good, too!

I suspect those of you at UCDavis are particularly fond of Shatner, having rubbed elbows with him at the transit of Venus so recently!

And then there's the rest of us:

JPL has great YouTube playlists called "The Challenges of Getting to Mars", "Cruising with Curiosity", and "Mars in a Minute".  Also, watch "The Science of Curiosity.

And for text, Ryan Anderson has a great blog:  Martian Chronicles, and Emily Lakdawalla has been blogging about space for years, and all her posts are great:  Snapshots from Space


PS:  Making it well past 3 am tonight in my quest for pre-landing time shifts!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Paper on the MSL Mission to Date

John Grotzinger and a number of team members have just published a summary of the MSL mission to date in Space Science Reviews:  This (open access) paper describes the science goals of the mission, the choice of landing site, and the science instruments.  It's a handy guide to what's going on - and will take hours to digest!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Jim Green's Post to the Planetary Exploration Newsletter

Dear Friends,

NASA's budget has been cut so badly that most of the planetary missions in the planning stages are threatened with no funding.  Jim Green sent out the message forwarded below to the planetary science community.  As a NASA employee, he can't encourage you to take part in political actions.  However, he alludes to the budgetary dangers that threaten future planetary exploration.  If Curiosity and the MSL team provide an exceptionally successful scientific mission with lots of public support, there might be more support in congress for future planetary exploration.  Thus, enjoy the mission and let your political representatives know how important it is to you and your friends.

Just to put the costs in perspective:  MSL is an exceptionally expensive mission, projected to cost ~$2.5 billion over 10 years (8 years of development and 2 years of mission).  That is a lot of money.  However, it is a tiny bit of money compared to many other things our government spends (wastes?) money on.  For example, 1 day of war in Iraq cost ~$720 million, so the entire MSL mission will cost the rough equivalent of 3.5 days of war (see also  Some politicians argue that the money spent on war goes mostly to American companies, etc., etc.  The same is true for planetary exploration missions.  They also develop new technology.  And unlike war, they do not take people's lives and they do inspire young scientists and engineers.  

May the people of the world explore the planets together!


PS:  It's my early evening equivalent time: 11 pm, target bed time:  3 am again.  I barely made it last night.


Volume 6, Number 33 (July 29, 2012)

Editor: Susan Benecchi 
Co-Editors: Mark V. Sykes, Melissa Lane
Email: pen_editor at

o---------------------------SPECIAL EDITION---------------------------o


James L. Green, Director Planetary Science, NASA

One week from today, our community will be forever changed, one way or 
the other, no matter what. The landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover at 
Gale Crater occurs at 1:31 AM (Easter Daylight Time) and it will be a history 
event. Curiosity is our latest flagship mission and it demands all of 
our attention. This feat represents the most difficult entry, descent, 
and landing (what is known as EDL) of a planetary science rover ever 
attempted, anywhere.  As you may already know, the historical success 
rate at the planet Mars is only 40%. Although our landing percentage 
odds are higher (100%), successful landing with an unproven, next 
generation, landing system…well, that will be a white-knuckle-
experience to say the least.

One short week away is the crescendo of the "Martian - Year of the 
Solar System." In addition to planetary's two years of success; for 
the MSL team, it's the culmination of over 8 long years of effort. 
Frankly, the future of the Mars program and perhaps planetary science 
is at stake. It goes without saying that we are in trying budgetary 

Each one of us in the planetary science community should appreciate, 
understand, and take ownership of this event. We should discuss 
Curiosity's Landing to our friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  
Whether you are part of the Mars program or not, I encourage you 
to become aware of what will happen in one week and talk to your own 
"network" of family and friends. At the very least, watch the 
"7 Minutes of Terror" video on Youtube, and hear firsthand what will 
occur. Beginning tomorrow, an animation will be available showcasing 
EDL on our Eyes On Solar System website:

An entire "toolkit" has been created to assist you in raising 
awareness and communicating all aspects of this incredible mission 
and the EDL event at: 

If you are hosting a landing event or are looking to participate 
in an event near you, please go to to find a 
location before the landing. Or, during the landing, watch it, live, 
online at that same site. For Curiosity and planetary science on 
August 6th, one way or another, our world will not be the same.

* The Planetary Exploration Newsletter is issued approximately weekly.
* Current and back issues are available at   
* send a request to pen_editor at
* To unsubscribe, send an email to pen_editor at
* Please send all replies and submissions to pen_editor at    
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Getting Ready...

I'm starting to shift my schedule to prepare for Curiosity's landing.  I am Long Term Planner for the first 4 sols (martian days), which requires that I work from about midnight to 10 am four days in a row, starting Monday morning, August 6.  I have a plan to shift my sleep schedule an hour or two later every day.  Tonight, my goal is to stay up until 3 am and sleep until 11 am.  Last night, 2 am was fine.  Tonight, it's 12:30 am, and I'm having trouble staying awake...  It's one thing to do it one day; it's another to shift to a night schedule for several days - but people do it all the time when assigned to the "graveyard shift".  Now it's my turn...

One advantage of being up late is that other mission people are, too.  I just got an e-mail update on Curiosity's cruise, which led me to this press release:  Curiosity's Daily Update  Curiosity's last course correction maneuver was successful, and we are on track for an excellent landing!

By the way, I did an interview with BBC radio, which will be part of their radio show Discovery to air August 6th if the landing is successful.  It was fun and interesting to talk about the science we can do with Curiosity.  Each little thing like this makes the mission seem more real, and it will be in 8 days minus 2 hours!

The "Thermal Inertia" of the landing ellipse in Gale Crater.  Thermal inertia is related to how much heat a substance absorbs.  Denser rocks have a higher thermal inertia than loose sand.  The red areas probably have hard rock.  The light blue band running through the east of the ellipse shows the location of sand dunes.  Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

MSL News Conferences

News conferences and the live NASA feed of landing have now been officially scheduled (see below).  These may change depending on mission results, but all can be watched live or recorded on NASA TV and on the Web at

Times are in EDT (PDT)

August 2, Thursday
1 p.m. (10 am)- NASA Science News Conference - MSL Mission Science Overview - JPL (All Channels)
2 p.m. (11 am) - NASA Science News Conference - Mission Engineering Overview - JPL (All Channels)

August 3, Friday
6 - 10 a.m. (3-7 am) - Live Satellite Interviews on Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Landing - JPL (Public and Media Channels)
12:30 - 2:30 p.m. (9:30 - 11:30 am) - NASA Social for the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Landing - JPL (Education Channel)
5:30 - 9:30 p.m. (2:30-7:30 pm) - Live Satellite Interviews on Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Landing - JPL (Public and Media Channels)

August 4, Saturday
12:30 - 1:30 p.m. (9:30-11:30 am) - NASA Science News Conference - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Mission Status and Entry, Descent and Landing Overview - JPL (All Channels)

August 5, Sunday
12:30 - 1:30 p.m. (9:30-11:30 am)- NASA Science News Conference Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Pre-Landing News Conference - Rover Communication overview - JPL (All Channels)
6 - 7 p.m. (3-4 pm) - NASA Science News Conference - NASA Science Mission Directorate - JPL (All Channels)
11 p.m. (8 pm) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Landing Coverage of Entry Decent and Landing (Commentary #1 Begins 11:30 p.m.) - JPL (Public and Education Channels)
11 p.m. (8 pm) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Landing Coverage of Entry Decent and Landing (Clean Feed with Mission Audio Only) - JPL (Media Channel)

August 6, Monday
NET - 2:15 a.m. (11:15 pm Aug 5) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Post-Landing News Conference - JPL (All Channels)
3:30 - 4:30 a.m. (12:30-1:30 am) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Landing Coverage and Commentary - Commentary #2 - (First Post-Landing Communication Session/Odyssey Downlink) - JPL (All Channels)
6 - 10 a.m. (3-7 am) - Live Satellite Post Landing Interviews on the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Mission - JPL (Public and Media Channels)
12 p.m. (9 am) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Post-Landing News Briefing - Landing Recap and Sol 1 Outlook - JPL(All Channels)
7 p.m. (4 pm) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Post-Landing News Briefing - Sol 1 Mid-Day Update - JPL (All Channels)

August 7, Tuesday
1 p.m. (11 am) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Post-Landing News Briefing - Sol 2 Update - JPL (All Channels)

August 8, Wednesday
1 p.m. (11 am) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Post-Landing News Briefing - Sol 3 Update - JPL (All Channels)

August 9, Thursday
1 p.m. (11 am) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Post-Landing News Briefing - Sol 4 Update - JPL (All Channels)

August 10, Friday
1 p.m. (11 am) - Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover Post-Landing News Briefing - Sol 5 Update - JPL (All Channels)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Odyssey in Position to Watch Curiosity!

One of the concerns about "watching" Curiosity land has been put to rest.  The Mars orbiter Odyssey can relay data from Curiosity to Earth in real time, but the other two orbiters (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express) will also watch, but will send back their observations at a later time.  Thus, we need Odyssey to know what happened during Curiosity on the night it lands.  But...  There was a fault on Odyssey a month or more ago, and the Odyssey team had to figure out what caused it sufficiently well to be willing to move Odyssey into position.  When something may be going wrong, you don't want to make something worse.  The Odyssey team has been working very hard for this moment - and they decided to try and successfully completed moving the orbiter for Curiosity.  It can watch the landing and beam data back to us.  If both Odyssey and Curiosity are eager to talk to each other, e.g. the data rate is high, we'll get a picture or maybe several on landing night.

Monday, July 23, 2012

First Images - When to expect them

Emily Lakdawalla writes the most interesting things in the best possible way.  Here is her analysis of when we'll see the first images from Curiosity:  Emily describes why it's uncertain with more clarity than I understood it before reading her blog.  And it's exciting to read.

Also, check out the side column called "Rover Wisdom".

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Curiosity Sampling

A couple of weeks ago, the MSL team put Curiosity's terrestrial twin through its paces with an "end-to-end" sampling exercise.  In a room at JPL, the twin drilled a rock, collected powder, and delivered it to an instrument.  It was the first time the full sequence had been performed in order!  There are some great images of the test on the LA times web site: 
From the LA Times article:  A rover replica...
For more, see:,0,5702122.photogallery

More and more information is accumulating on the web about the landing.  Here are some of the links:

1. Emily Lakdawalla blog post about MARDI, 20 July 2012.

MARDI is one of the cameras that I've watched go from just an idea to an outstanding scientific instrument.  It's main purpose is to take pictures during decent, recording the later part of the 7 minutes of terror.  It won't see anything until the heat shield is jettisoned.  However, after that point, it will take the first ever movie of landing on Mars!  We will use these images to place the rover in context in the first few days, and we expect to get many great scientific results from its images.

From Emily's blog:  
Test image from Curiosity MARDI containing Ken Edgett
2. Curiosity's Daily Update: Curiosity Completes Week of Onboard Computer Preps

Innumerable details go into the computer programs that run Curiosity.  Software development and debugging are always ongoing.  This link gives a day-by-day taste of some of the things the engineers are looking into with the software.  It's bad enough when your personal computer reboots when you're almost done with that long document.  When it happens when you are accessing the hard drive, the whole file can be corrupted.  Now imagine rebooting during landing on another planet - we need a backup that will take command immediately.  There is one...

3.  Follow Your Curiosity: Some New Ways to Explore Mars

This is the link to the X-box game for landing on Mars that was covered in the press conference on last Monday.  I heard it was great.  I personally missed the press conference because I witnessed a car accident and stopped to help in case someone was injured.  Luckily, everyone was okay, but I spent an hour standing by the side of a freeway rather than watching the press conference!  You can get the game free here:

4.  NASA's Car-Sized Rover Nears Daring Landing On Mars

This is the press release that went with the press conference...

5.  MSL Landing Press Kit:

And everything else you wanted to know (almost) is in the press kit!


What fun!!!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Practice, practice, practice...

I've been in Pasadena working to prepare for landing, working on Mars time.  This means I tried to go to sleep at 6 pm last night, got up at 11 pm and went to work at midnight.  I'll be the Long Term Planner (LTP) for the first few "sols" (martian days) on Mars, and we are doing tests on that schedule.  One of my main jobs is to promote good science - how much better does it get than that?  After working 10+ hours, I went back to my hotel and managed to sleep for a couple of hours, but not well.  I've been dozing until now.  7 pm, and I'll get up for breakfast.  I don't have to be at work again until midnight, so I'll probably go for a walk around Caltech until then.  This time, it's only for 2 nights, I'll be on this schedule for the first four days of the real mission, but martian days are longer than Earth days, so our schedule will rotate with Mars time - and someone else will rotate in at LTP.  At that point, my time will be more flexible, but I'll still be working hard with others following up on the science that needs to be done.

Many people have survived Mars time before (and being LTP!).  I'm fairly good at changing time zones, so it will probably be interesting, but not too bad.  It was really nice to eat dinner outside in the early light this morning.

Here are a couple of interesting links: 

This looks like a really cool App for iPads and iPhones.  I don't have either, but know people who do.  If you are one of those, show it to me!


Added note: A photo from my dad of the iPad app at work:

Friday, July 6, 2012

MAHLI Paper Published!

I am a co-investigator on several scientific cameras, including the MArs Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI).  It is a fantastic camera, and you can now read all about it in great detail at  The MAHLI Principle Investigator, Ken Edgett, put in a major effort to get this paper published while also preparing for the mission and doing his other work.  He is also dedicated to open access publication, like many of us, so EVERYONE can read about MAHLI and what we can do with it on Mars.  Congratulations to Ken!

The MAHLI calibration target; see the press release at the JPL MSL web site.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Martian dune buggy

Here's a great video of a "scarecrow" version of Curiosity climbing up a sandy slope in Dumont Dunes.  Scott Maxwell (JPL, twitter @marsroverdriver) narrates the video.  Scott will be one of several stellar rover drivers that will help make sure that Curiosity can actually do what we ask it to on the surface of Mars.

Steep sandy slopes are a challenge for any vehicle!  Watch how the wheels slip.  And on Mars, there is no one to pile out of the rover with a shovel to help.  I have vivid memories of sand in a canyon in Namibia that include shovels, frustration, incautious driving, wood and rocks under wheels...  

Mike Malin (MastCam and MARDI PI) at the Dumont Dunes test.

Monday, July 2, 2012

NASA MSL Social Event

NASA is holding a social media event at 5 of its centers on Aug 3 to spread the news about MSL.  NASA is looking for people with a strong presence on social media to go to one of the centers for special events:  I suspect most of you don't want to go.  However, I think the idea is to have a social media blitz on MSL.  Thus, Aug 3 would be a great day to look for MSL information on Twitter, in blogs, and on other social media sites.  Here's the NASA response to the question:
What if I cannot come to the event?
If you cannot come to the NASA centers to attend in person, you should not register for the NASA Social. You can follow the conversation using the #NASASocial hashtag on Twitter. JPL may broadcast a portion of the program with live chat on .
If you cannot make this NASA Social, don't despair; NASA is planning others in the near future at various locations. Check back on for updates.

On the theme of 4th of July, NASA has a press release about the Spirt of 76 pyrotechnics that will fire on Curiosity after it lands on Mars.  Many parts of the rover, such as the wheels, are all packed up during flight.  To break those packing bonds, the engineers set off "firecrackers".  The ones that hold the wheels are fired after the rover starts to be lowered to the surface, but before the wheels touch down.  (This reminds me that many of you are new to the list: watch this video: called 7 Minutes of Terror about landing!)

A few little updats

These are from Ken Edgett, MAHLI PI:

A few little updates:

1a. Somehow this slipped by me. From the LA Times on 11 May 2012, featuring Grotzinger and Edgett:

Scientists discuss rover's upcoming mountain climb on Mars


2. From 26 June 2012:
  Curiosity Rover on Track for Early August Landing

3. LA Times' Amina Khan joined us in the rover testbed last Friday (22 June) and she tweeted some pictures, etc.:

7 minutes of terror

Here's a very dramatic video about landing on Mars:


Amy and I just got back from 2 days of training at JPL.  We worked on designing camera activities (MastCam for me, and MastCam and MAHLI for Amy) based on image requests from the science theme groups.  We learned a lot about how the process of deciding what the rover is asked to do as well as what it can actually do.  It seems more and more real every time.

Mars Time

Here's a nice article on Mars time (except that they made a bad assumption about when MSL will land - the real time is about 22:30 Aug 5):

New landing ellipse!

NASA announced today that the MSL landing ellipse is smaller and closer to the strata of interest in Mount Sharp.  The ellipse is now oval, rather than spherical, and it's shape reflect results of substantial montecarlo modeling of the entry, decent, and landing (EDL) system.