I've spent the last two days at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as part of NASASocial, and it's been an intense, incredible experience. Friday morning was jam-packed with speakers, followed by a tour of the facility on Friday afternoon and a NASA Social dinner that evening. This morning we attended the press briefing, followed by additional time for questions with various members of the team.
I'll be writing about my adventures in more detail in future posts, but I'm going to attempt to get to bed early tonight in prep for the long day tomorrow. With Curiosity's landing scheduled for 10:30pm PDT, it's going to be a long day. But before I head off, just had to leave you with a few tidbits...
The big question, of course, is can we actually LAND the rover now that we've managed to get MSL closer to Mars than the Earth is to the moon. This morning at the press briefing, Doug McCuistion, Mars Exploration Program Director, NASA Headquarters, spoke eloquently about what it will mean if we fail. He said, "If we're not successful, we're going to learn from this. We've learned from the past. We will do it again, this is not the end. the human spirit gets driven by these kinds of challenges."
I just re-read what I wrote, and noticed my use of the pronoun "we." I've only been at JPL for two days, but I feel like I'm a part of this incredible adventure. Maybe it's because I've been reading stories about imagined versions of planetory exploration and life on Mars since I was a little kid. Maybe it's because the energy at JPL right now is so electric that it can't help but draw one in. Or maybe it's just that there is something so breathtaking about the size and scope of this endeavor that it engages all of us dreamers, all of us who have gazed up at the night sky and wondered if we're really alone out here on this big blue rock.
For more insight on someone who's been involved in this mission in a way that goes beyond tweeting about it, though, check out this CNN profile on rover driver Scott Maxwell. A Shakespeare fan and devoted boyfriend, Maxwell has driven both Spirit and Opportunity, and is super-excited about getting his hands on Curiosity. He beautifully describes the source of his continued enthusiasm:
"I reach out across 100 million miles of emptiness and move something on the surface of another planet. That feeling has never left me."
For more, you can follow him on Twitter @marsroverdriver.
The big question at the press conference was how will we know if we've been successful? And when will we know?
[Side note: the journalists in the audience were really antsy about the 'when' question, as they still apparently have earthly deadlines to meet].
Steve Sell, from the JPL MSL entry, descent and landing (EDL) team explained that as Curiosity is making her descent, she'll transmit a series of "tones", or Event Records (EVR) back to Earth as she hits various points during the sequence. The team won't actually hear anything - the tones will appear as numbers on a screen and won't include information or data. They're essentially like very short text messages that will let us know she's hit certain milestones in the sequence.
In addition, the orbits of Odyssey and Mars Reconaissance Orbiter (MRO) have been adjusted so that they'll pass over Curiosity at various stages of EDL. The communications sent through the orbiters will include data-rich messages with information such as altitude and velocity...and eventually images. Odyssey will transmit "live", while MRO will be on a tape delay (no, the NBC Olympics schedulers were not consulted about this).
Within the first 24 hours of landing, there are four times we're expecting Curiosity to"phone home" and let us know she's doing ok. Here's when we're hoping the phone will ring...
-12:30 a.m. PDT: (two hours after landing): Odyssey passes over the rover
-11:30 a.m. PDT: Odyssey passes over the rover again
-11:40 a.m. PDT: MRO flies over Curiosity
-5:30 p.m. PDT: Curiosity communicates directly with the Deep Space Network for the first time
Meredith Popolo, one of my fellow @NASASocial participants, is writing about our adventure for PC Magazine, and goes into more detail in "What's Ahead for the Mars Curiosity Rover."
Last but not least, @MarsCuriosity and Neil deGrasse Tyson had a fantastic conversation on Twitter earlier today. Let's just say Curiosity's got a great sense of humor...
To follow all the action on Twitter on landing night, use the hashtags #MSL and #NASASocial.