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!