Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Working in a cold desert environment

After our firehose of information at JPL, I spent a week traveling to New York to talk about the Moon and Lunar exploration at the gracious invitaiton of the folks at the American Museum of Natural History. I went to the American Museum and the Hayden (as it was knowm back then) planetarium frequently while growing up and I remember the huge dioramas of New York State mammals fondly. It was a great pleasure and privilege for me to be invited there professionally. I also got to spend Thanksgiving day in Albany with my family, which was really great, fun, and relaxing.

Now that I'm back home, in the cold, clear air among the desert rocks of New Mexico, I'm in a Martian state of mind. This week, I'm setting up my office to be a remote operations station for the rovers. As one might expect, JPL takes a lot of precautions to safeguard data and computers, so there is some work setting that up correctly. In addition, because the MER mission was only expected to last 90 days, there waasn't a lot of incentive to make software as streamlined or user-friendly as it might be otherwise, and system updates have come and gone. Once you get familiar with all the tools, they're surprisingly intuitive, but this week is dedicated to really digging in, listening every day to the process end-to-end, figuring out where things reside and how to generate files. It's the really unglamorous side of spacecraft operations, but it's unexpectedly satisfying to come out at the end of the day with a plan to radiate to the spacecraft that sets you up for another day of potential discovery.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mars needs women

In this last round of selections, two of the eight scientists selcted for the Athena science team were women. One is me, the other is Aileen Yingst, who is a friend of mine from a long time ago. We were in grad school at the same time and have kept in touch with each other through conferences and email. We are sharing a room this week and going through training together, and I am so grateful! It is so great for me to be able to talk with he about our common experiences, hopes, and fears. Of the "classic" science team, only two others are women, but the JPL operations team is about half women, and some days all the operations roles are filled by women! That's something truly remarkable. Check out this great article about the first female rover driver: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/spotlight/20051109.html


After a hectic few weeks clearing a lot of work off my plate, I'm at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where the MEr project is run. It's a real thrill and priviledge to meet the people who make the rovers work, and who make sure the rovers continue to work. I'm still pretty stunned to be a part of it all.

I and the other new scientists new to the team have spent the past two days in the amazing, high-tech MER conference room staring wide-eyed at 7 computer projected screens as the scientists, instrument engineers, and various other personnel have turned a firehose of information upon us. We are all completely overwhelmed with what it takes to run this mission successfully. We are each expected to contribute our time and talents to the mission, but have been given free rein to decide which roles we would like to fill. Personally, I am having some difficulty in choosing. I feel like a kid in a candy store, where everything looks interesting and appealing, and I want to try it all! Fortunately for all of us newbies, the rovers are in excellent health and show no signs of imminent demise, so I might get my wish to be able to sample it all.

We are also interacting every day with the daily operations people. It is nice to be able to have a real person to conect with the voices I'm been listening to on telecons and the backs of heads I see in the videoconferencing. Tonight, we had a little social event - we ended up talking a lot of shop, but also got to hear a little about other peoples' backgrounds, and drink some beer too, as geologists are wont to do when gathered together.

The rest of the week will be concentrating on hand-on experience with the daily tools of operations planning. We also will all participate in this week's end-of-sol meeting, a weekly tag-up just for the scientists to talk about science. It's where we get to present new results, share wacky ideas, argue over interpretations - the stuff we really like to do!

Thursday, November 03, 2005


I'm reading Steve Squyres' book before going to sleep at night, and having these dreams where I'm personally responsible for crashing the rovers!


This week, I've been lurking on the kickoff telecons that take place at the beginning of each (earth) day. These telecons are where the team tags up to make a plan for the rovers for the next day. Because of the 9 minutes it takes a radio signal to get the Earth from Mars, and another 9 minutes to send a signal back, it's impractical to interact with the rovers in real time. Instead, every day we uplink a whole sequence of commands to the rover, telling it what we want it to do with its day on Mars. The rovers have some very sophisticated software onboard so you can tell it, "Go 30 meters north" and it will use its judgement to avoid rocks and go around obstacles to end up where to tell it to. You can also tell it to point its instruments at the sky or at a specific point on the ground and take pictures or get a science observation.

In addition to the daily plans, the science group also has long-term plans for each rover that get reviewed every week or so and guide the daily planning. This week, we evaluated what we want Spirit to be doing for the Martian autumn. We want to get to a specific target that is far away, and we need to get there before the winter sets in and the solar power available drops by a lot. To do this long-term plan requires a lot of driving and doesn't leave a lot of time for wandering around. It's good to be in on these discussions so that I can better judge what potential constraints on my science interests are.