Tag Archives: Mars

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.


Earthlings on Mars

If scientists eventually discover strange new life forms on Mars, then Bernie Bates is going to be out about $4 to members of the Tacoma Astronomical Society. Bates, professor of astronomy at the University of Puget Sound, made a friendly wager with those who attended his talk at the club’s meeting earlier this month. He has a shiny new dime that says we will find life on Mars and that it will look awfully familiar.

Bates expects we will have a definitive resolution to the wager by around 2026. NASA recently announced a Mars mission for 2020, and the ESA and Russia are working on a slightly earlier mission, both with an eye toward eventually returning samples of Mars rock and soil for analysis.

Bernie Bates

Bernie Bates, astronomy instructor at the University of Puget Sound, spoke about Mars exploration at the August meeting of the Tacoma Astronomical Society.

“They’re going to get samples back, they’re going to find microbes in it, and they’re going to pull the microbes apart,” Bates says. “The microbes are going to have DNA that we recognize, nucleotides that we recognize.”

“Life will be there on Mars,” Bates bets, “and it will be Earth life.”

The reason: Earth and Mars have been exchanging rocks for billions of years. “Mars is so close to us that there’s been cross-contamination between the two planets.”

Bates is confident he won’t have to pay off on the 10-cent wager about this multi-billion dollar question. But he isn’t offering odds or compound interest!

Recent science has been pretty conclusive about the past habitability of Mars, according to Bates, though Mars hasn’t been very Earth-like for the last two or three billion years.

“All of the geology questions in a sense have been answered,” he says. “We’ve got every potential smoking gun you can ask for for life on Mars.”

He expects we will find it.

“If Mars had life on it then it’s still there, someplace, probably underground,” Bates says, noting that microbial life is tough and adaptable. “The planet itself never did anything so hostile so quickly that it could wipe it out.”

Exploration of Mars was bumped up a notch or two with the arrival there of Curiosity a year ago, Bates says. A big reason is its power source, a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that will keep the rover operable for many years.

“They know they have enough time to do the science, they don’t have to rush, they can actually think through what they’re doing,” Bates says.

Time means flexibility. Bates notes that Curiosity spent the better part of its first year on an unplanned detour to explore the geology of an area named Glenelg near its Martian landing site.

“The spacecraft has an almost unlimited lifetime, they trust it, and they can do something like that” without jeopardizing the primary mission, Bates says.

Finding life on another planet, even if it actually originated here on Earth, wouldn’t exactly be ho-hum. Bates believes, though, that the greater discovery will come from a bit further out than Mars.

“If you want to find what the real search is for in the solar system, what they call second genesis, a different type of life, the Jovian people are the people to put your money on,” Bates says.

Money is a key factor. Interplanetary exploration costs a lot, and there’s not much to go around. The bulk of it is being invested in Mars these days, but Bates and many astrobiologists are rooting for more funding for those who want to probe the systems of Jupiter or Saturn. Both gas giant planets have moons that have interesting possibilities for life.

“Europa, Enceladus, that’s where the answers are,” Bates says.


The eyes of Mars visit Queen Anne

Melissa Rice has a sweet gig.

Melissa Rice

Dr. Melissa Rice of Caltech spoke about the Mars Rovers at a Queen Anne Science Café event in July. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I actually get paid to sit around and look at pictures of Mars all day,” said Rice, an Eastside native, during a Science Café talk at T.S. McHugh’s earlier this month. Dr. Rice, who works for the Division of Geological & Planetary Sciences at CalTech, is a science team collaborator on the Curiosity Mars science laboratory mission, and also worked on the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions. She was back in Seattle for a special July Science Café event, sponsored by the Pacific Science Center, KCTS-9 television, and the Planetary Society. Rice gave a talk titled “Through the ‘Eyes’ of NASA’s Mars Rovers.”

It was a good homecoming for Rice who, like Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, got her start at the Pacific Science Center.

“As a kid I came many, many times and loved it, and that’s where the seeds were planted that led me here working on these Mars missions today,” Rice said. “I feel really honored to be back here, paying it forward, planting some seeds for some of the next generation that is here with us tonight.”

Mars sunset

Rice and solar system ambassador Ron Hobbs both love this photo of a sunset on Mars, snapped by the Spirit rover in 2005. Photo: NASA.

As the “eyes” of Mars Rice has worked with the rover cameras, so a big part of her presentation was a showing of her top 10 photos out of the hundreds of thousands of them that have been sent back from Mars. Her favorite is of a blue sunset on the Red Planet, taken by Spirit in 2005. Coincidentally, that is also a favorite of local Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs, with whom I was sharing a table at the event.

Rice hopes humans visit Mars some day, though she would not make a very good travel agent.

“Mars is a pretty awful place,” she said. “It’s a dry, desolate, barren wasteland.” The reason to go is to answer the big questions about life somewhere besides Earth.

“If we do find that Mars is a place where life could have survived, and if we do eventually send spacecraft to Mars that bring samples back, and we find evidence for ancient microbial communities on Mars, then we know we’re not alone, and that’s about as profound a thing that I can imagine happening in my lifetime,” Rice said.

She’s fond of her Mars robots, but says they do have their drawbacks. Curiosity, for example, when it’s driving on automatic navigation can only travel about 200 meters per day. The rover has to analyze a lot of data before every turn of the wheels to pick the most trouble-free route.

“The rover is thinking so hard that it doesn’t have time to drive any faster,” Rice quipped. The speed points out one reason that she’d like to see people on Mars some day.

“What those rovers have done in eight years a human could do in a couple of days,” Rice said. She’s excited for NASA’s proposed 2020 Mars mission, a Curiosity-class rover that would address key questions about the potential for life on Mars, and pave the way for human exploration.

Rice was moved to start on this great adventure, a career in space exploration, by a video she saw during a high school astronomy class. The video depicted how the Sun would one day run out and our solar system would be no more. But the universe would roll on.

“That is what inspired me to study astronomy,” Rice said. “This thing that is greater than ourselves will be around longer than any of us will.”

You can watch Rice’s entire presentation on the KCTS-9 website.


Touchdown confirmed! Curiosity lands safely on Mars!

In what is arguably the nation’s greatest engineering achievement in space, NASA‘s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity landed safely on Mars a little after 10:15 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time Sunday. Because of the distance from Earth to Mars and the time it takes communication to travel between the two, we didn’t know until 14 minutes after it happened that a complicated landing plan worked.

Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, hosted a gathering at the Kenney in West Seattle to watch NASA TV coverage of the landing. “This has already happened,” Enevoldsen said of the time delay. “It’s just like the NBC Olympics!” she quipped.

More than 50 people attended the event, and the tension was palpable in the viewing room. Here’s Seattle Astronomy video from the landing:

“Shake hands with the person next to you,” Enevoldsen said after the landing was confirmed. “That crazy landing maneuver worked!”

The Curiosity landing has at least one big Washington state connection. Rob Manning, flight system chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, attended high school in Burlington and is a 1980 graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla. Coincidentally, Enevoldsen also is a Whitman alum.

Maps and rovers

Mars fans gather after the successful landing of "Curiosity" to check out model rovers and Mars maps to learn more about the science mission. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It’s interesting and encouraging that the landing drew such a crowd late on a warm summer Sunday evening. While a number of those who attended are residents of the Kenney, a retirement community in West Seattle, local media such as the West Seattle Blog and Seattle Astronomy spread the word, and many visitors attended as well. After the excitement of the landing many of the attendees gathered around a table set up with model rovers—including some made from Lego blocks—and looked at maps of Mars with the various spacecraft landing sites marked. Enevoldsen fielded questions from many of those in attendance.

We understand there was a good crowd at the Mars Fest at the Museum of Flight as well.

It’s encouraging to see the interest in the mission and the excitement about the successful landing. NASA administrator Charlie Bolden was clearly both relieved and elated with the successful landing. The mission is a pricey one, at $2.5 billion, and a crash landing would have been demoralizing to say the least. Afterwards Bolden, speaking to the NASA TV audience, called it “a huge day for the American people.” National pride aside, it has to be good for NASA to pull off a big success in these days of shrinking budgets. Energizing the public and impressing the folks with the purse strings can only help.

Getting to Mars was the hard part; now Curiosity and its arsenal of scientific instruments can go about the business of poking around Mars for evidence that our neighbor planet has supported or could support life.

We’re curious to see what it finds.


Top Mars scientist to give talk at UW

There are several interesting talks on the Seattle Astronomy calendar for the next week.


CuriosityOne of the scientific leaders of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission will give a talk in Seattle next week. Dr. Pamela Conrad of the Planetary Environments Lab, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center will speak on “Assessing the Habitability of Mars: Exploring Gale Crater with the Curiosity Rover.”

Curiosity is on its way to Mars, scheduled to land in Gale Crater on Aug. 5. Conrad will explain how the rover will go about determining if Mars is or ever has been capable of supporting life.

The free talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23 in room 210 of Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus. The talk is sponsored by the UW Astrobiology Program and Astronomy Department.

The Right Stuff

Robots in Space
This Sunday the senior curator  in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum will give a talk at the Museum of Flight about “The Right Stuff Revisited: Project Mercury 50 Years On.” Roger Launius, former chief historian for NASA, will look back at the Project Mercury space program and the individuals who carried it out, and discuss what it means today on the eve of the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s first U.S. orbital flight.

Launius, co-author of Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel, is a compelling speaker who gave a couple of talks here in 2010.

The talk begins at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19 at the museum. Free with admission.


Worried about the world ending this December? Alice Enevoldsen says you shouldn’t be. The author of Alice’s Astro Info and planetarium whiz at the Pacific Science Center will discuss “The 2012 Hoax: The Kitchen Sink” at tonight’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. The kitchen sink of apocalyptic indicators includes the planet Nibiru, the rollover of the Maya Long Count, a long-expected and non-conjunction of planets, some sunspots, and a lack of reversal in the Earth’s magnetic field, and the continued alignment of the Earth, Sun, and galactic center. Enevoldsen will debunk the doomsayers.

SAS meets at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15 in room A-102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building at the University of Washington in Seattle. It’s free and open to the public.

Keep on top of space and astronomy related events in the area by following the Seattle Astronomy calendar.


On a road trip to Mars

There may be no better measure of the advance of technology during the space age than a count of photographs from Mars missions. Mariner 4 shot fully 21 pictures when it flew by Mars in 1965. Nearly half a century later, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity have returned more than 270,000 images from the surface of the Red Planet.

Photo from Mariner 4

Mariner 4 image showing craters in the Memnonia Fossae region of Mars. Some folks were still expecting canals. Photo: NASA, NSSDC.

Ron Hobbs calls the rovers “one of the incredible feats of the space age.” Hobbs, a NASA solar system ambassador, gave a talk titled “The Great Martian Road Trip” during Mars Fest last Saturday at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

While there weren’t many photos from Mariner, Hobbs said there were enough to debunk a century of belief that there might be a civilization on Mars. Mariner found not canals but craters.

“Overnight Mars went from a place that might have intelligent Martians building civilizations and canals to a place not much different from the Moon,” Hobbs said.

We followed the Mariner mission with the Vikings, which were equipped to look for signs of life.

“At that point we still believed that Mars could be habitable,” Hobbs noted. And the Viking landers actually found signs of life.

“But there was a problem,” Hobbs said. “There were no dead bodies. There was no organic material in the soil.”

With that, scientists concluded there wasn’t much happening on Mars, and we lost interest for a couple of decades. Oddly enough, Viking I may well have found organics, but just didn’t see them. A couple of years ago the Phoenix lander found perchlorates in the soil of Mars, and perchlorates would have masked any organics that Viking may have come across.

Spirit and Opportunity have clearly been the sexy rovers that have captured our imaginations. Hobbs recalled that the museum had a Mars Fest in 2004; Spirit was already on Mars, and Opportunity landed later that night.

“Nobody would have imagined that seven years later at least one of them would still be roving the Martian surface,” he marveled. Spirit is stuck in the sand and quiet, but Opportunity is still rolling and working.


The Museum of Flight had a full-size model of the Mars Science Lab Curiosity on exhibit last year. The real one is set to launch this fall. The auto-sized rover includes a rock-zapping laser. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The next generation of Mars rover is Curiosity, an automobile-sized rover that is scheduled to launch later this year. It’s a complex geochemical laboratory that Hobbs said has a broader mission.

“In addition to looking for water, NASA is now beginning to look for organic materials, that is, carbon-based materials on Mars,” Hobbs said. “The mantra is shifting now from follow the water to follow the carbon.”

Hobbs is enthusiastic about the Mars missions.

“I don’t need any justification for exploring,” he said, adding that his own curiosity compels him to climb hills to see what’s on the other side. “But I do hope that what we’re learning on Mars and some of the other worlds of the solar system will help us protect the only planet that we know of right now where there’s life.”


Zubrin: Humans could be on Mars by 2018

Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin scoffs at the ridiculously complicated and expensive missions that planners keep proposing for getting humans to the Red Planet. Zubrin says that if we decided to go today, we could be there in seven years with a program of Mars exploration that is relatively inexpensive.

Robert Zubrin

Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars, signed copies of the book after his talk Saturday at the Museum of Flight's Mars Fest. Zubrin says if we decided now to go to Mars we could be there by 2016. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Zubrin gave a talk Saturday as part of the Mars Fest at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. He said that it’s important for us to explore Mars.

“Mars is the closest planet to us that has on it all of the resources needed to support life and therefore civilization,” he noted.

A short time-line is critical, according to Zubrin, who says if we set a goal to get to Mars in 30 years it will never happen.

“In 1961 John F. Kennedy committed us to get to the Moon by the end of the decade, and we were there eight years later,” he said. “If in fact John F. Kennedy had instead committed us to get to the moon not by 1970, but by 1990 or the turn of the century, we never would have made it.” New political regimes change the plans, and often existing efforts are scrapped.

Zubrin has a plan for getting to Mars, called Mars Direct. He says it won’t take some sort of super rocket to get to there, and that we can do it with technology we have now using an approach he calls “lift and throw and let it go,” using a rocket with a second booster stage.

“That’s how we’ve done every real, unmanned planetary mission to date, and that’s how we did the Apollo missions to the Moon,” Zubrin noted. “None of these missions beyond lower orbit have ever been done by lifting things up to an orbiting spaceport and transferring them to a Battlestar Galactica-class interplanetary spaceship using a plasma drive that’s been refueled and refurbished in the orbiting navy yard.

“If we can lift and throw the payloads to the planet, right there you’ve gone 90 percent of the way towards taking the mission out of this sort of science fiction future, and putting it in our world of real engineering,” he added.

The Case for MarsSince a great deal of the mass of a Mars mission would be fuel for getting back home to Earth, Zubrin suggests we “travel light and live off the land,” sending the return rocket to Mars in 2016, two years ahead of the human explorers, and using chemistry to create methane and oxygen there. When people arrive for an 18-month stint, their return vehicle is ready to go. Every two years you send another return vehicle along with a human exploration crew. Radiation, solar flares, and zero gravity all can be dealt with, he said.

Zubrin has tremendous passion for the idea of human exploration of Mars. He said it’s important to answer the question of whether there was life on Mars, but also whether there will be life there.

“Mars is not just an object of scientific inquiry,” he contended. “It is that. It’s a very important object of scientific inquiry. It is the Rosetta Stone for letting us know the truth about the potential diversity and prevalence of life in the universe. But that is not all it is.

“What Mars actually is, fundamentally, is a world. It is a planet with a surface area equal to all the continents of the Earth put together. It has on it all of the resources needed to support life and civilization. If we can learn how to use those resources, we can make Mars habitable.”

That wouldn’t happen overnight. Rather, Zubrin said our generation has the chance to make Mars intellectually habitable.

“If we can go to Mars and develop the craft of making use of Mars’ resources,” he said, “then Mars becomes a place where human beings can support themselves, and where a new branch of human civilization can develop and grow, and in the fullness of time grow in size and extent and technological and industrial capability where it can begin to address the question of the actual physical transformation of Mars.

“By so doing we set into motion the process where we not only bring life to Mars, we bring Mars to life.”

America, Zubrin says, needs the challenge.

“To say that we can’t do it, that we have to wait for futuristic developments, is just to say that we have become less than the kind of people we used to be, and that is something that I think this country cannot afford,” he concluded.

After the talk Zubrin signed copies of his book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. The book spells out Mars Direct in detail. A Wikipedia entry gives a good summary with lots of technical information.