Al Chen is the Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team. He has worked on MSL in its various incarnations nearly continuously since his arrival at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2002. He holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a M.B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. He looks forward to finally getting the chance to land Curiosity safely on Mars.
About twice the size of California's Disneyland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a 177-building campus situated in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. In addition to a mission control center and 9,600 square-foot clean room, the lab is home to a simulated Mars landscape called the Mars Yard, as well as a 25-foot space simulator. In the fall of 2009, JPL unveiled its newest building, the environmentally friendly Flight Projects Center, which houses missions during their design and development phases.
The Aquarius satellite, scheduled for launch in June 2011, will break new ground in the investigation of sea surface salinity, a major component of Earth climate studies. Just within a few months, Aquarius will collect as many sea surface salinity measurements as the entire 125-year historical record, offering a better understanding of the water cycle and ocean circulation, and providing an essential missing piece to the global climate change puzzle.
Launched in 2007, Dawn is the first spacecraft designed to orbit two different bodies after leaving Earth. In July 2011, it will arrive at the giant asteroid Vesta, which it will orbit before departing to reach the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015. The feat is enabled by Dawn's use of ion engines to gradually accelerate the spacecraft.
One of four JPL missions set to launch in 2011, the Juno spacecraft will study the giant gas planet Jupiter to help understand its origins and evolution. Because of its mass, Jupiter -- the largest planet in the solar system -- still holds much of its original composition. By investigating Jupiter's core, intense magnetic field, auroras and atmospheric composition, scientists hope to collect important clues about the formation of the solar system when Juno arrives at the planet in 2016.
Flying twin spacecraft in tandem orbits, the Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, mission will launch in September 2011 to measure the moon's gravity field in unprecedented detail. The mission will also answer longstanding mysteries about Earth's moon -- including the possible existence and composition of an inner core -- and the origins of the solar system.
Could Mars ever have hosted environments conducive to life? Mars Science Laboratory will look for answers when the flagship mission launches in fall 2011 taking the largest-ever rover, Curiosity, to the Red Planet. In addition to its science capabilities, the mission boasts innovations in landing and surface exploration technologies, which will allow its Curiosity to land more accurately and explore more terrain than ever before.
The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, will carry the first focusing hard X-ray telescope to study the evolution of massive black holes, supernova explosions and active galaxies. NuSTAR is planned for launch in spring 2012.
One of three antenna's across the globe, the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif. is key in communicating with and even controlling distant spacecraft and robots. The 70-meter-diameter (230-foot) dish is capable of interpreting even the tiniest spacecraft signals from millions of miles away. Together with antennas in Canberra, Australia, and Madrid, Spain, the Goldstone antenna is an essential communication portal for robotic spacecraft throughout the solar system.
Technologies originally developed for space missions often find their way to Earth to improve the quality of day-to-day life. As one example, JPL researchers have partnered with the City of Hope to explore the potential of carbon nanotubes -- used in various space applications to help produce electrons -- to diagnose and treat brain tumors. Initial studies on mice have shown that the tubes are an effective and non-toxic means of transporting cancer-fighting agents to the brain.