Tag Archives: Terry Himes

Mars Insider gives the scoop on Red Planet missions

To work for the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) it would probably be helpful if you had some juggling skills.

“At JPL we have 24 flying missions in deep space,” said spacecraft engineer Terry Himes, who has had a hand on most of those craft. Himes gave a talk titled “Mars Insider” recently at the Museum of Flight.

Terry Himes

NASA JPL spacecraft engineer Terry Himes spoke at the Museum of Flight April 29, 2017 about his work on various missions. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Our job as spacecraft engineers is to keep the health and welfare of the spacecraft,” Himes said, and that’s a job that doesn’t always line up with the science goals of the mission.

“The science guys want to go to the worst possible places on the planet,” Himes laughed. “They want to go to horrifying places and land in crevasses and do all kids of crazy stuff. We (engineers) want to land on flat, sandy plains.”

Thus choosing a place to land is a battle from day one and can often be a lengthy discussion, Himes said. For the Mars Science Lab Curiosity, for example, the science team wanted to land as close as possible to Mount Sharp on Mars so they could explore the geology there. They were able to land in a tight spot by using the controlled descent of Curiosity’s incredible landing method. Himes noted that the target landing area for Mars missions, known as the “landing ellipse,” has been shrinking over the years. While Viking had a landing ellipse 300 kilometers long, they dropped Curiosity into a target of just 18 kilometers.

“It’s like hitting a golf ball in San Diego and making a hole-in-one in New York,” Himes said.

Once a lander is on the ground there’s another daily discussion about what it will do next. This is typically based on photos sent back from the activities of the previous sol, or Martian day. They consider interesting nearby objects, any hazards in the area, and the overall health of the rover. Himes noted that Curiosity’s wheels have taken a beating from hard and sharp rocks on Mars. He also related a funny story about the wheels.

A message in the sand

NASA had told the spacecraft team that they couldn’t put a logo or any other mention of JPL on Curiosity because the project involved all of NASA and scientists from other countries, too. They got around that by putting cutout grooves in the wheels that are Morse code for the letters, so that every time those wheels turn they leave J-P-L in the Martian sand.

“Don’t mess with engineers,” Himes laughed.

A little InSight about Mars

The next project for Himes will be InSight, which after a recent delay is now scheduled to launch next May and land on Mars in November of 2018. InSight, which is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport, will help us figure out how rocky planets form and evolve. The craft will be a modified version of Phoenix, another mission Himes worked on, which found ice near the north pole of Mars in 2008. InSight will have a couple of new instruments.

InSight The Mole

This artist’s concept depicts the InSight lander on Mars after the lander’s robotic arm has deployed a seismometer and a heat probe directly onto the ground. InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The first is the Heat flow and Physical Properties Probe, or HP3, which Himes says they’re calling simply “The Mole.”

“It’s a heat transfer mechanism,” Himes said. “We’re going to go into the surface of Mars and conduct heat experiments, see how much heat is there.” The mole will be driven some five meters into the ground on Mars.

The other instrument is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, or SEIS, a “very broad band” seismometer sensitive enough to detect meteor strikes way on the other side of the planet. These two instruments will give scientists information about the inner workings of Mars.

There are a couple more Mars missions on the drawing board. Mars 2020 will be a lander much like Curiosity—NASA can save some cash by re-using spacecraft designs if they can serve the purpose—and it will look for signs of past microbial life on Mars, explore the possibility for creating oxygen in the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and do a variety of other experiments.

NeMO, the “next Mars orbiter,” will provide another communication link should a current orbiter fail, and it also could be part of a plan to return pieces of Mars to Earth.

“Mars 2020 may be depositing samples that it gathers in canisters and leaving them around,” Himes said, “and then NeMO may have something that’s going to go down to the surface, pick them up, and come back, and return to Earth.” Himes noted that plans for NeMO are still quite preliminary.

As these missions are developed it seems likely that Himes will be in the middle of it all.

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Mars events on tap for week of Astronomy Day

There are a couple of Mars-themed events on the docket for Red Planet buffs this week, plus star parties and Astronomy Day celebrations.

AOT April 26Astronomy on Tap Seattle returns to Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 26. Two talks are on the schedule. Bob Abel, a professor of applied physics at Olympic College, will give a lecture titled, “Where are the Martians?” Abel will look at the history and current state of our nearby neighbor, Mars, and examine the possibilities of life in its past, present, and future. University of Victoria doctoral student Benjamin Gerard will discuss his research on “Imaging Worlds Beyond Our Solar System.” He’ll show pictures of other worlds and explain how we use the most powerful telescopes and specially designed optical systems to distinguish an exoplanet from the overwhelming glare of its host star.

Abel, by the way, is scheduled to give a talk on a similar topic at Olympic College on May 4.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is free, but buy some beer. Bring your own chair to create a front-row experience in the Peddler beer garden!

Red Planet insider

There’s more Mars in store when NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Terry Himes gives a talk at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 29 at the Museum of Flight. Himes is a veteran of many Mars missions, such as the InSight and Phoenix landers. He’s also worked on Dawn, Deep Impact/Epoxi, and more. Learn what it takes to get there, and back.

Star parties

There are several star parties scheduled for the weekend. The monthly Covington Community Park Star Party is planned for 9 p.m. Friday, April 28 at the park in Covington. The star party is a joint effort of the Seattle Astronomical Society, Boeing Employees Astronomical Society, and Tacoma Astronomical Society. It’s weather dependent, so watch the websites for more information.

The Battle Point Astronomical Association will celebrate Astronomy Day beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 29 at their Edwin Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. Daytime activities include viewing the Sun, a walk through the solar system, and tours of the observatory. Once it gets dark they’ll look at Jupiter and other celestial delights if weather permits.

OMSI and Rose City Astronomers in Portland celebrate Astronomy Day with star parties at two locations: Rooster Rock and Stub Stewart state parks in Oregon. They’ll get going at sunset, weather permitting.

You can always scout out future events on the Seattle Astronomy calendar.

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