Thursday, June 29, 2006

New press release

Last week, I attended a meeting of lunar scientists to talk about the science direction of the return to the Moon "vision" that NASA has. After work, we got talking about Mars, and one of my colleagues said that he was disappointed at the lack of depth in the MER outreach web pages. He said, it's always that the rover is looking at a rock, and he thinks, well duh, of course the rover is looking at a rock, that what the rovers do. But why? What's the science?

It was with that comment fresh in my mind that I was asked to write a caption for this week's public image release for Spirit, which has been working on this really interesting rock. We had to do a little bit of work to strike the right balance between getting the interesting part to the public while still being cautious because the results come out so fast that we scientists don't always have time to keep up with the data before moving on, and so our detailed science can lag behind the rovers' discoveries. The chemical and mineralogical data, in particular, take a lot of time and attention to be sure the calibrations and interpretations are the best we can do. In the case of Halley this week, I was pleased that we were able to give some specifics that the team agrees on.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Rovers don't take vacations

As you can probably tell from the sporadic nature of this blog, I had a pretty busy travel schedule over the spring, not all of it related to Mars. I had long ago blocked out last week for "vacation" - not planning to go anywhere, just to take some mental time off. Well, instead I spent three of the days working for the rovers, two by schedule and one by volunteer. It's completely addictive. Opportunity has extricated herself from the Jammerbugt dune and we drove and took pictures of tracks last week. Spirit is still sitting in place taking the 360 degree Pancam mosaic.

But speaking of Pancam, last week I found myself in upstate NY for some family things and took a slight detour up to Ithaca for a couple of hours. I spent part of Opportunity's planning day with the Pancam crew at Cornell, which was fantastic (in that inner geeky way). I met several of the payload uplink people, with whom I've interacted on the telecon line many times, and got to see where the polycon shows them hard at work. I also was able to ask lots of questions about compression algorithms and other super geeky things I wonder about during the planning process. I don't think I'll be an expert remote senser anytime soon but the more I am able to actively interact, the more things soak in eventually.

Finally, my idol Steve Squyres was on the Colbert Report on Comedy Central last week; you can see the video clip there or download the entire 06/07/07 episode from iTunes. The more Steve does on this mission the more in awe of him I am and the more nervous I get around him! But Stephen Colbert does a great interview - he had a similar idea as mine - to drive the two rovers toward each other. OK, my idea was to have Robot Wars (verrrrrry sloooooowly) and his was to mate them and create a race of robot overlords, whatever. Each rover only has to travel 5336 km to meet in the middle; Spirit has driven 6.9 km already and Opportunity 8.1 km. At an average speed of 3.8 km/year, it'll only take another 1400 years or so. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Thinking ahead

Like 3 years ahead. This week I participated in the 1st workshop on where to land the Mars Science Laboratory in 2009. The Mars Science Laboratory is a huge rover - it looks like a really big version of MER but it's got 3x as many instruments, an expected lifetime of 2 years, and a roving capability of more than 20 km. But, there's only one of them, not twins like the MERs, and everybody wants MSL to land in a different spot on Mars. We've only landed in 5 places so far, so the planet is wide open! I talked about my preference for going to ancient terrain where we can try to assess what the early crust of Mars was and how it was changed by water at a time in Martian history when we think conditions were less harsh than they are now. To my sincere surprise, the site I (and two other people) advocated generated a lot of interest and will be getting a lot of extra remote sensing time in the upcoming months to characterize it more and see if it really is as fantastic a landing site as we think it is. Even without that bonus, it was a really interesting workshop, where scientists from all different disciplines and backgrounds came together just to talk about what makes a good landing site and what we as a community are interested in seeing and what tools we have or can get to make sure we pick the best spot possible for this highly capable mission. I felt quite priviledged to be a part of it, and I have my involvement in MER to thank for giving me the entry point into the community of Mars science.