Friday, October 28, 2005

First telecons

Today I listened in on the science planning telecons for both Spirit and Opportunity. There's a lot I don't understand yet, but the gist is that engineers and science team members get together every day, review the data that was successfully downloaded the previous day or overnight, get updated on the rover and instrument health, and decide what commands to uplink to the spacecraft to have it continue its long-term science goals. It's a surprisingly collegial process, where (at least today ) everyone got what they needed and what they wanted in terms of observations, driving distance, etc. There's some special software that allows everyone to see the same presentations and the command sequencing, as well as videocameras to the JPL planning room, because most of the scientists partipate from their home institutions rather than living at JPL.

Miss MER

That's how a friend recently addressed me in an email - I am a new member of the Athena Science Team and will be working with the fabulous little robotic explorers on the Martian surface to get to new places and look at new rocks and try to figure out what we can about Mars. So many people have asked me what's going on, what will I actually be doing, what does it take to drive the rovers around, what will I be learning - so I'll be keeping this blog for a while to let you know when I do! So far, I don't know a whole lot about my new role but I'll try to reflect what it's like as I learn.

First of all, the Mars Exploration Rovers are twin spacecraft built and operated by the Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles. The rovers each carry a package of instruments called the Athena science package. So I'm a member of the science team, chosen to conduct science investigations with the instrument package.

The MER rovers landed on Mars in 2004 and have been like the energizer bunny - still going! The principal investigator, Steve Squyres, recounts the building, launch, and first year of the mission in his book, Roving Mars : Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet, that I will be picking up this weekend.