The inside story on the Curiosity rover

Rob Manning has been sending things to Mars for 34 years. A Whidbey Island native who was inspired about space by the far-out stories he read in National Geographic and Colliers, Manning is now the Mars Program Engineering Manager for the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab‘s Mars Exploration Program. He gave a talk this month at the Museum of Flight based on his book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014).

Rob Manning

Rob Manning, chief engineer for Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, gave a talk about the rover June 18 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Manning opened his presentation by showing the now-famous video of the JPL crew during the “seven minutes of terror,” the lag between the moment of Curiosity’s landing on Mars and the moment when the team finally learned it had been a success. Engineers were laughing and crying and backslapping. Emotional engineers?

“We were very relieved,” Manning joked, noting that a lot of money had been spent on the mission and many of them had been working on it for many years. “We know how fragile these systems can be even though we put in an enormous amount of work to make them as reliable and sturdy as possible.”

“These are human enterprises,” he continued. “They are not built by institutions, they’re not built by abstract organizations. They’re just a bunch of people working together trying to make sure they didn’t make a mistake.”

NASA lost interest in Mars for a while after the Viking landers found a pretty sterile and hostile environment. Manning’s first mission was Mars Pathfinder, which he jokingly calls “the easy one.”

“One way to get good at something is to start simple,” Manning said, noting that the landing system for Pathfinder, which he called “a brick with wheels,” was even less complicated than that of Viking.

Manning said that each mission teaches lessons, even missions that fail, such as the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. He said the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are essentially modified Pathfinders. Spirit and Opportunity, roving geologists, confirmed there was once water on Mars. The discovery raised questions that the roving geologists couldn’t answer, but that a roving geochemist could.

“The trouble is roving geochemists have a laboratory with all of this big lab equipment,” Manning said. “So we needed to figure out a way to take the lab equipment, shrink it down, put it in a rover, and send it to Mars.”

That became Curiosity, which Manning said has been doing great work.

“We’ve basically proven that Mars was a wet place, it had oceans, it had seas, it had a lot of water long ago,” he said, adding that early, simple life forms could have been perfectly happy there. Were they? We don’t know yet.

Next up is Mars 2020, which will collect rock and soil samples on Mars for a potential future return to Earth.

“We haven’t had the name-the-rover contest yet,” Manning joked. Its design will essentially be based on Curiosity, though in this case they are going to re-invent the wheels. Curiosity’s wheels have been punctured by sharp rocks that are essentially immovable, locked in place in Martian sediments.

“This is a failure of our imagination,” Manning said. “We had sharp rocks in our Mars yard (where they test out designs on Earth), but they weren’t glued down.” He said 2020’s wheels will be similar, but stronger, and not much heavier.

Manning’s current work is on that mission, and he’s also busy cooking up ways to slow down and land even larger and heavier spacecraft with an eye toward a possible human mission to Mars in the 2030s. Manning said that, because of its thin atmosphere, “Mars is not a very good place to land.”

We expect they’ll come up with a way to do it.

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Astro Biz: Blue Star Café & Pub

IMG_0952Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring them regularly on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is the Blue Star Café & Pub on Stone Way in Wallingford. The Blue Star is just a short distance away from another Astro Biz, Sun Cleaners, and it is a sometimes post-meeting hangout space for the Northwest Science Writers Association.

We love the “eggs cetera’s” on the Blue Star sign; their website claims they offer “40 unique egg dishes,” though none of the menu items bears an astronomy theme (apart from the Blue Star pancake combo).

Check out the Blue Star on your next trip to Wallingford.

More info:

Do you have a favorite Astro Biz? Send us a photo and a brief description, and you may be featured in a future Astro Biz!

Astro Biz index

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Big plans for satellite imaging company BlackSky Global

The latest Seattle-based entry into the private space business has announced ambitious plans to offer up “satellite imaging as a service,” selling color photos with one-meter resolution at a significantly lower cost and with far less turnaround time than is presently available in the market. BlackSky Global is aiming to launch two of its Pathfinder imaging satellites in the first quarter of next year and has the funding available to have a total of six of them up in orbit by the end of 2016. BlackSky’s long-term plan is to have a constellation of 60 high-resolution imaging satellites in operation by 2019.

Peter Wegner

Peter Wegner. Photo courtesy BlackSky Global.

“We’re laying out the systems so that we’ll be able to take a picture essentially of anywhere on the planet and send it back to a customer on a timeline measured in minutes, and be able to do that at consumer kind of prices,” said Peter Wegner, chief technology officer for BlackSky. “It really is exciting; it’s something that’s never been possible before.”

The typical buyers of satellite images are governments, corporations, and other large entities working on security, border defense, environmental monitoring, and precision agriculture. Wegner expects those, and more, to be BlackSky customers.

“It’s going to open up all kinds of new markets, too,” he said. “There are a number of firms around the world that use satellite imagery to do analytical predictions of commodities or natural resources, energy. It really is, in some sense, about global market intelligence and feeding the demand to know what’s happening around the world everywhere, all the time, 24-7.”

Eventually it will be a consumer business. You could go onto the BlackSky website and, for a few hundred dollars, order up a photo of your backyard. The one-meter resolution of the images will reveal people or groups of people, but they won’t be identifiable.

BlackSky Pathfinder Spacecraft - Final Integration_Jim Bowes, Technician

Technician Jim Bowes checks out the Pathfinder spacecraft. Photo courtesy BlackSky Global.

“That’s important because there are a lot of concerns about privacy, and we also have those concerns as a company,” Wegner said. “This allows us to provide the capability to monitor what’s happening around your environment, but not get down to the level where it causes a privacy concern.”

BlackSky is an independent company owned by Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries, which specializes in launching small satellites as secondary payloads. We wrote about the firm’s SHERPA payload adapter ring two years ago.

Wegner said Seattle is a great place for BlackSky’s sort of business.

“There seems to be a growing center of gravity for small space companies to move to Seattle,” he said, noting that the mix of aerospace, high-tech, and web expertise is perfect.

“All three of those things are really important for our business, because if you’re going to make this a consumer-level product, you need the web-scale business experience, you need the big data experience, and you need the aerospace experience, which all fits uniquely where we are in this area.”

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Seattle Astronomy calendar, week of June 22

Is it live, or is it Memorex? Two of the top local astronomy events of the week are on tape with real-time discussion, while we can look up in the sky any night and watch the two brightest planets draw ever closer to each other.

Science on Screen

Hillary Stephens

Hillary Stephens of the Pierce College Science Dome.

Though we had not heard of this series before, Science on Screen returns to the Grand Cinema in Tacoma at 6:45 this evening, June 22. The evening will include a viewing of the 2011 science fiction film Another Earth, in which a duplicate of our planet is discovered within the solar system, and a discussion titled, “Is Anyone Out There?” The discussion leader will be Hillary Stephens, director of the Pierce College Science Dome planetarium.

The concept of Science on Screen was started by the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston. The program creatively pairs films with lively introduction lessons by scientists. It returns to Tacoma and Pierce County for a second year thanks to a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation.

Astronomy on Tap

cosmosontapAstronomy on Tap Seattle returns to Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 24. This time the topic will be Cosmos on tap, as attendees will view episode number one of the original Cosmos series featuring Carl Sagan. Graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington are the presenters of Astronomy on Tap. This will be their fourth event since launching this spring, and it’s always fun and informative.

A guest speaker will be on hand Wednesday to introduce the show, lead a Q&A, and discuss what has changed since Sagan created this groundbreaking series. Also promised: Cosmos trivia, Cosmos bingo, prizes, and fun. Astronomy and beer; you can’t beat it! It’s free, but please RSVP so they know how many to expect.

Venus and Jupiter draw closer

The two beacons of the twilight sky, Jupiter and Venus, continue to draw closer and closer together in the west each day as dusk settles in. The Moon joined the dance the last several nights, but now it’s just the two brightest planets doing their little dance. They’ll appear barely over two degrees apart by Friday, and they’ll be at their closest next Tuesday, June 30, when they’ll be just a third of a degree apart and will easily fit into the low-power field of view of a telescope.

Check Sky & Telescope‘s “This Week’s Sky” feature for more observing highlights, and bookmark the Seattle Astronomy calendar to keep up on local astro events.

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Book review: Photography Night Sky

We at Seattle Astronomy are not into astrophotography as such; while we enjoy the images created by others, our own interests in amateur astronomy lean strongly toward visual observation. Nevertheless, we have been known to do a little shutterbugging from time to time, and thus Photography Night Sky: A Field Guide for Shooting After Dark (Mountaineers Books, 2014) is an interesting read.

Authored by Jennifer Wu and James Martin, Photography Night Sky is not a guide for deep-sky photography, but rather a primer for shooting nightscapes, including stars, the Milky Way, star trails, the Moon, and twilight scenes. Wu and Martin also cover meteors, aurorae, false dawn, and other celestial phenomena.

The 100 gorgeous color photos included in the book are proof enough that the authors know what they’re talking about. They have the credentials to back it up, too. Wu has won a bevy of awards for her work and is a Canon “Explorer of Light” photographer. Martin has written and photographed professionally since 1989 and is the author of several books, including the best-selling Photography Outdoors: A Field Guide for Travel and Adventure Photographers, which had a new release last year.

Photography Night Sky is a highly accessible guide for the novice shooter, and we expect seasoned photographers also will find some good pointers within. Wu and Martin cover equipment and preparation for shooting, and get into such topics as composition, focus, and optimum camera settings for various conditions. They also address some of the challenges of photography at night, especially shooting in the cold. The book includes chapters about the various sorts of objects one might shoot in the dark, and a full chapter about post-processing of images.

We were especially interested in the sections about lighting and the methods, such as light painting, for enhancing the appearance of objects at night without washing out the stars you’re trying to capture in your images.

Wu was in Seattle to give a talk last month, but we had to miss it, as it was scheduled at the same time as a lecture by renowned cosmologist Jim Peebles. But we’re glad to have a copy of Photography Night Sky, and hope the advice from Wu and Martin will help improve our own imaging. Pick up a copy at the link or by clicking the cover photo above, or visit the Seattle Astronomy Store.

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One-sided race to the Moon nearly derailed

It’s a popular narrative that the race to land a man on the Moon in the 1960s was launched by President John F. Kennedy in a speech to Congress in May of 1961, and was a gung-ho, nonstop effort until the goal was achieved in 1969. In fact, the space policy expert Dr. John M. Logsdon says the whole thing was nearly undone in 1963.

John Logsdon

Space policy expert Dr. John Logsdon spoke June 13 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Logsdon is the founder and longtime director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University and author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He gave a talk titled, “John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and the American Space Program” last weekend at the Museum of Flight.

Logsdon pointed out some interesting contrasts between the two presidents. Richard Nixon was an early space booster, arguing for a civilian space agency when he was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower. Some historians think of Nixon as the father of NASA. Meanwhile Kennedy didn’t have much interest in space until the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April of 1961. This got Kennedy’s attention, and he gave his advisors the task of coming up with a space effort that the United States could win. Their answer was landing on the Moon, and that became Kennedy’s goal.

“It had very little to do with a view of humanity’s future in space or some romantic image of the space frontier,” Logsdon explained. “This was a Cold War, deliberate act of competition, seeing space as an area to demonstrate which social system, which governmental system was superior.”

Ramping up space spending

“Kennedy not only talked the talk, but he backed up his rhetoric with commitment,” Logsdon added. “This was a war-like mobilization of human and financial resources.”

Indeed, the NASA budget nearly doubled the first year and more than doubled again the second, and the skyrocketing cost came under considerable criticism. Kennedy was sensitive to this for a couple of reasons. He was concerned about the political impact of the Apollo program losing support, and worried that spending on space could be a negative in his 1964 re-election campaign. There was some talk of cutting the budget or relaxing the end-of-decade timeline for the goal. Kennedy also spoke openly of making the quest for a Moon a cooperative venture with the Soviet Union. Logsdon said that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev originally expressed some interest in the idea, but was talked out of it by advisors worried that cooperation would reveal that the Russians really didn’t have lunar launch capability.

The one-sided race

“The United States was racing only itself,” Logsdon said of that lack of capability. “The Soviet Union, as of September of 1963, didn’t have a lunar program” and, in fact, didn’t decide to try until 1964.

“It was not reality as long as Kennedy was president. It became reality by the end of the decade,” Logsdon said.

Kennedy visited the launch center in Florida on Nov. 16, 1963 and was impressed by the rockets and the facilities.

“This visit excited Kennedy,” Logsdon said. “He came away from the visit full of regained enthusiasm for the program.”

On Nov. 21 Kennedy made a speech in San Antonio in which he said that the conquest of space must and will go ahead. He was assassinated the next day, and that ended any possibility that Apollo would be scrubbed. It became a memorial to the fallen president. Logsdon said it is interesting to speculate about what might have happened if JFK had lived or if Khrushchev had said “yes” to collaboration.

Logsdon said he doesn’t see Kennedy as a visionary in terms of humanity’s future in space.

“He was rather a pragmatic politician that saw a leadership-oriented space program as in the national interest in the particular situation of the early 1960s. He chose the lunar landing as a way of demonstrating the capabilities of this country,” Logsdon said.

Nixon and Apollo

Nixon was sworn in as president six months to the day before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon with Apollo 11.

“Unlike Kennedy, who saw space in geopolitical and foreign policy terms, Nixon viewed the space program as an issue of domestic politics: of technology, of innovation, of job creation, of something that is part of what the government does to stimulate society,” Logsdon said.

He contends that Nixon made three key decisions about space. He didn’t set a grand goal like going to the Moon or Mars. He opted to treat space exploration as just another one of the things that government does, nothing special. And his administration approved the space shuttle, though Logsdon said they chose to, “build a program around the shuttle without a long-term goal for the shuttle to serve.”

Logsdon said there may have been some wisdom there. A big goal, and an accompanying big budget, could have been a target, while a small, sustainable space program didn’t attract much opposition.

“Nixon was totally convinced of the importance of human spaceflight and of keeping astronauts in orbit, and that human spaceflight was essential to a U.S. leadership position,” Logsdon said. “He was intrigued by the various national security uses of the shuttle, which never happened.”

Naturally, electoral politics entered into it as well. The shuttle program created jobs in California, and Nixon needed to win California to gain re-election.

Logsdon is an engaging speaker and used a lot of video and audio clips in his presentation. His books are worth a look for anyone interested in the history of the space program. To buy the books click the links or book covers above, or visit the Seattle Astronomy Store.

More reading:

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Seattle Astronomy calendar, week of June 15

Summer arrives in the Northern Hemisphere this week, there will be an array of public astronomy events, and we celebrate a couple of anniversaries of women in space.

The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 17 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. As of this writing, the guest speaker presentation was still listed as TBA; watch the SAS website for updates.

TJO

The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Later that evening, starting at 9 p.m., the University of Washington will host one of its bi-monthly open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Rebecca Kemmerer, a senior in physics and astronomy, will give a talk titled, “Stars and Their Place in the Milky Way.” Kemmerer’s presentation will include a discussion of the different types of stars in our galaxy and the ways that their masses influence how they are born, live, and die. It’s free, but reservations are strongly encouraged for the talk; the classroom is small and fills up quickly! Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to give tours of the observatory and, if weather permits—and we’re optimistic it will!—will offer a look through the facility’s vintage telescope.

Women in space

Two anniversaries of women in space come up this week. Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman in space when she flew on Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. That flight is still the only solo space flight by a woman. Twenty years and two days later, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman to fly in space when she launched on the crew of the Challenger and STS-7. Ride has been on our pages a lot of late. Her birthday was May 26, and we also enjoyed Lynn Sherr‘s recent biography of the astronaut, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space (Simon and Schuster, 2014). Sherr was in Seattle last year and spoke about Ride.

Busy Saturday of astro events

There will be a lot to choose from for astronomy enthusiasts on Saturday, June 20. The day’s festivities kick off with a talk by Rob Manning, the chief engineer for the Mars rover Curiosity. Manning will talk about his book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014). The talk will be at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Flight. For our money the landing of Curiosity on Mars was one of our greatest engineering achievements. Here’s a chance to get the inside story. Pick up the book in advance. Manning will sign copies after his presentation.

Summer begins Sunday at the solstice, which happens at 9:38 a.m. Pacific time. Saturday evening Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info will host a solstice sunset watch at Solstice Park in West Seattle, with the gathering beginning about 8:45 p.m. for the sunset, which will be at about 9 p.m. Enevoldsen is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, and this will be her 25th seasonal sunset watch at the park. They’re fun and informative!

The Seattle Astronomical Society will host two public star parties June 20, at Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Both will begin at 9 p.m., weather permitting. The Tacoma Astronomical Society also plans a public night Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. Presenter Chuck Jacobsen will talk about the Sun, and, weather permitting, members will be on hand with telescopes for a look at what’s up in the sky.

Happy Father’s Day

In case it slipped your mind, Father’s Day is June 21, and we think dear old dad would love a telescope, eyepiece, or astronomy book as a present! There’s a lovely selection of such things in the Seattle Astronomy Store!

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