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Jim Bennet Mars Rover Report
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Gary Sunkin Mars Report
Jim Bennet
Mars Rover Report
NASA and JPL Win A Big One On Mars

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NASA and JPL Win A Big One On Mars

By Jim Bennett and Gary Sunkin

January 15, 2004


Less than 5 miles from Pasadena's Rose Bowl, Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) division carefully manages and develops the Mars Exploration Rover project among its many assignments for NASA's Office of Space Science. The entire mission team scored an incredible scientific and exploration touchdown against numerous challenges and odds from the mission's conception to its introduction to Mars.
-----On January 3 at 8:51 pm PST the first of two Mars rovers named "Spirit" was successfully placed directly on target within the 95 mile wide Gusev Crater near the Martian equator. This mission was built on "lessons learned" from previous missions like 1997's Pathfinder, the latest in top creative and scientific "can-do thinking" and a $820 million total project investment that includes two super hi-tech maxi-ATV sized Mars Rovers that function as "robotic field geologists" seeking out "ground truths" on another planet. The other rover, Opportunity is the scheduled to land at Meridiani Planum on the far side of Mars January 25 with a confirmed landing signal to Earth planned for 9:05 PM PST on January 24. Originally the two rover concept was planned to double the chances of mission success and increase possibilities for scientific exploration to assess whether liquid water on Mars has ever made environments conducive to life. Each rover has a primary mission operational specification of 90 Mars days or "sols" (equivalent to 92 Earth days) at near surface temperatures at the landing sites of &endash;100 C (-148 F) to 0 C (32 F).
-----Underscoring NASA's commitment for success JPL Director Dr. Charles Elachi said "We have done everything we know that could be humanly done to ensure success. We have conducted more testing and external reviews for the Mars Exploration Rovers than for any previous interplanetary mission."


The misson's total scope and main elements are impressive. Here are some highlights: The rovers are the project centerpieces and function as mobile laboratories. They are designated to conduct geological fieldwork including the examination of rocks and soils that may reveal past water activity. Science instruments include Panoramic cameras, miniature thermal emission spectrometer, Mossbauer spectrometer, alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, microscopic imager, rock abrasion tool and magnet arrays. Each rover weighs 174 kilograms (384 pounds) and measures 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) high by 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) wide by 1.6 meters (5.2 feet) long. They are powered by a solar panel and lithium-ion battery providing 140 watts on Mars surface.
----- Each rover spacecraft was launched from Flordia on three stage Delta II rockets and spent about seven months in cruise mode en route to Mars. During the cruise and Mars approach solar panels provided electricity, JPL performed commanded trajectory correction maneuvers, instrument checkouts and other corrections are carefully calculated firings of thrusters to make planned adjustments to the spacecraft's flight path including an optional final maneuver on arrival day to tweak landing targeting. Spacecraft tracking is done by two traditional tracking schemes and supplemented by a newer method called delta differential one-way range measurement which helps reduce the amount of uncertainty in delivering the rovers to their targeted landing sites. The new method also uses the Deep Space Network sites on two different continents to simultaneously receive spacecraft signals from this triangulation method to improve accuracy.
----- Additionally, space travel time is used by JPL to test critical procedures, equipment and software in preparation for arrival. Entry, descent and landing techniques used proven and enhanced systems such as the airbag-cushioned landing scheme that successfully delivered Mars Pathfinder to the planet in 1997. Within minutes after a successful landing, motors will begin retracting the airbags and then the lander petals will open uncovering a rover tucked snugly inside. Hazard identification cameras mounted below the plane of the solar panels will begin taking images of the immediate surroundings and transmitting them back to earth. Approximately one week will be needed to complete a series of engineering and scientific tasks before moving the rover off its lander. At that point, new and exciting chapters of Mars terrestrial exploration begin.


NASA's Spirit Mars Exploration Rover traveled over 300 million miles since a June 10, 2003 Cape Canaveral launch. The spacecraft and Spirit Rover survived space travel hazards and a fiery 80 mile descent through Mars atmosphere at speeds starting at 12,300 mph. Its precise safe landing in the Gusey Crater adjacent to the Martian equator Saturday night at 8:51pm Pasadena time was less than 6 miles from the planned landing target center. This remarkable success may mark the reopening of a new era of space and scientific exploration and achievement not seen since the sixties with the Apollo moon missions.
----- Perhaps this successful Mars Rover mission will provide the right spark and proof of performance for the U S administration. Its important to note that Mars is a very difficult destination especially with a precise landing and on the surface roving, analysis and transmission of data back to earth. Review of worldwide efforts indicate 66% of the Mars space missions have failed, including the recent ESA Mars Express/ Beagle 2 December, 2003 and the Japanese Nozomi December 13, 2003 efforts. However, success a major elements of this daring and well planned mission maybe enough to start justifying much needed additional governmental scientific and financial support. Recently informed sources suggested the President may announce new support for space based projects around the December 17 activities centered around the 100th anniversary of flight celebrations.
----- The difficulty and complexity of these missions is lost on the general public and many otherwise intelligent people worldwide. Only America's NASA and some key international partners have been making key space and technical breakthroughs for decades against difficult challenges and some loss of life. At the dawn of the 21st century the Internet, created in America by DARPA will play key roles in these current missions. It will also effectively inform a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of these remarkable space explorations and perhaps technology benefits to the world's citizens.


At JPL on Saturday evening, nervous, determined and laser focused NASA team members quickly turned into elated, cheering celebrants. They were shaking hands, hugging fellow scientists and team members upon receiving confirmation from NASA's Goldstone antenna that the Rover's low gain antenna was transmitting a strong signal from Mars. Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab was elated with the good news and was quick to give credit to the many people who have contributed their full commitment and talents by working around the clock, including holidays, and creatively using their enormous talents for months and years to make this early phase of the mission a "picture perfect" success.
-----The mission's importance was underscored by the presence and sincere personal engagement and support of NASA's top administrators. Sean O'Keefe NASA top Administrator was actively engaged with fellow governmental and NASA team members in the mission control room for most of the evening prior to and during the spacecraft's precise Mars atmosphere entry and difficult descent. The time between Mars initial atmosphere encounter to "safe roll stop" landing and signal confirmation is especially critical and could range from 91 minutes to hours depending on conditions encountered. The most intense time is called by many NASA team members the "Six Minutes Of Hell" due to high velocity speeds and temperatures, 12,000 mph and up to 2,637 F temperatures on the heat shield and communications black outs. Operational communications delays of the spacecraft and rovers extend into minutes due to distance and operating conditions but NASA has learned to operate within these limitations.
-----Mr. O'Keefe, still clearly beaming with the energy of relief and success, kicked off the press conference shortly after confirmation of a successful landing by NASA's Deep Space Tracking Network. He opened his remarks by saying, "This is a big night for NASA. We're Back. I'm very, very proud of this team that we are on Mars." Celebratory champagne served by Mr. O'Keefe and more congratulations followed adding to the accomplishments of the moment and the opportunities ahead. This mission is clearly demonstrating how NASA can flawlessly perform the first critical steps in the challenging Mars operations environment namely descent survival and delivery of a fully functioning Mars Rover within a few miles of the intended optimum landing spot.
-----Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator For Space Science has four decades of space experience. He has seen and experienced many cycles of space exploration and underscores progress continues to be made and the Mars Rover program is of significant importance. When asked about the degree of difficulty in this early phase of the Mars Rover misson both Mr. Weiler and JPL's Dr. Elachi provided two compelling examples. "It's like trying to thread a needle with thread from miles away." Also, "It's like playing golf in New York City and hitting a hole in one to Tokyo with a formidable water hazard (the Pacific Ocean) in between." Louis D'Amario, JPL's lead navigation chief commented that last minute landing program adjustments had to be made to compensate for a Martian dust storm and the possible heating and thinning of the upper atmosphere so the spacecraft's parachute would deploy earlier to minimize a hard landing.
----- Wayne Lee , JPL entry descent and landing chief engineer was among the most animated and colorfully dressed team member in the JPL control room. His red, white and blue American flag styled shirt was observable throughout the control room and he appeared to be at the top of his game for this important landing. His pre-landing interviews were informative and during the descent he was a frequent "go to" person.
-----Peter Theisinger, Mars Rover Project Manager said "more objectives need to be accomplished before the mission is completed but much risk has been successfully minimized with this very successful descent and landing."
-----Jennifer Trosper, Mission Manager for Surface Operations, looked relieved after the landing. She later mentioned high levels of dust was affecting solar battery charging and energy usage must be carefully watched.
-----Cornell University's Steven Squyres, the mission's Principal Investigator was overjoyed with the successful landing and the spectacular images Spirit was transmitting. Over 60 monotone images were transmitted by Spirit late Saturday night. They were studied by NASA/JPL mission scientists and admired by journalists alike. High resolution color images were going to be received from the rover's panoramic camera on Monday.


This is a great start for a well deserved mission that may re-open a new stage of scientific discovery and perhaps significant commercialization and benefits for earth's citizens and generations to come.


Respectfully Submitted
Josie Cory
Publisher/Editor TVI Magazine

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