Monday, April 24, 2006

Roving Mars!

Rob and I finally went to see Roving Mars this weekend in Phoenix. It's an IMAX film about the launch and landing of Spirit and Opportunity and has some really spectacular full-screen renderings of some of the early data. It wasn't as long as I would have liked but it was amazing to see some of the pictures on the humongous screen. Also, I was glad to see some of the cenes of the scientists when landing occurred - I was in a tent in Antarctica at the time and missed the excitement. Something about Steve Squyres having his own IMDb entry strikes me as hilarious, though his brother Tim is a bona fide Hollywood editor.

Spirit is definitely nestling down for a long winter in her present location. Unfortunately for me, there's no good rocks right in front of the rover, so my grand plans for multi-rock analysis campaigns will have to wait until after the southern Martan winter solstice (August 8). The soil and remote sensing people are kicking into high gear for the first part of winter and have some really cool plans for looking at different levels in the soil and acquiring the McMurdo Pan, a grand 13-filter panorama of everything around us. Opportunity is still zipping along, less than 1500 m to go to Victoria crater!

So, while I am supporting operations, I'm trying to dig into some data analysis, including multivariate analysis. I took linear algebra in college as an elective because I am such a geek. It was one of the few classes where I succumbed to the whining refrain, "When will I ever use this in the real world?" Well, 15 years later, it's come round to haunt me with whispers of eigenvectors.....

Friday, April 07, 2006

Sand trap

Wow, I'm sorry I haven't updated you all in a month! I've been traveling a lot this semester for work unrelated to MER.

Here on Earth, we had a fantastic turnout for the MER sessions at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, where the team updated everyone on the current science and other members of the community got to offer their own interpretations. Always lively, sometimes contentious, never boring. It's an exciting time to be looking at this data! I presented my poster on my ejecta calculations - how much ejecta from far-away terrains should we expect to find at the MER landing sites? I'll give you a clue: not much. But you can see the whole paper here. It's my first single-author paper and it was published on my birthday this year!

Up on Mars, Spirit is dragging a wheel. It's the right front wheel, the one that went gimpy early in the mission. At this point, it is steerable but not driveable and so it's just dragging behind us. In principle, that's fine and the rover is totally ok driving with 5 wheels. In practice, we got terribly bogged down in some soft, sandy soils and had some real scary days where the rover wheels dug in and we watched our power sink lower and lower. We re-evaluated our plans to get to north-facing slopes and decided to retreat back the way we came to better ground.

We chose a Winter Haven along Low Ridge, a small feature possibly connected to Home Plate, with nice slopes and lots of rocks. We're now developing plans for what to do there as Spirit waits out the winter. I think it's going to be a really exciting time because we will finally have time to sit in one place and do some detailed analyses of rocks and soils, so I'm actually very much looking forward to the winter, despite the scary power numbers!

On the other side of the planet, things are looking zippy - literally. Being nearer the equator and dust-free, Opportunity continues to have a favorable power situation even into the wintertime and is making amazing mileage along dune troughs and outcrop rock. We're only 2 crater radii away now from this humongous crater, Victoria, which is Opportunity's destination. It's old and eroded but probably dug pretty deeply into Meridiani Planum, so it should be super interesting when we arrive.