A few hours ago I had the privilege to watch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The creativity, effort and dedication of many, many people were sitting on the launch pad. Many of the people who had worked so hard to get the mission to the pad were in attendance with family and friends there to share in the excitement. The weather was perfect. Cold enough to make the stars seems to be just out of reach, still enough to be pleasant to stand outside waiting for the main event. As it got closer, hundreds of voices followed along the magic of the countdown - "10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 - Liftoff!". The rocket cleared the pad - rising on a column of intense white light. At our distance, it seemed to rise forever before the roar finally reached us. In the dark, clear sky we could watch the various stages burn out, fall back and be replaced by the ignition of the next state. Everything seemed to be going perfectly.
We got on the buses to leave the viewing area, excited by what we witnessed and excited by the mission to come. Both feelings did not last long. Soon text messages and phone calls started to disturb the darkened buses. Within a few minutes, it was clear that the launch had not gone as well as we thought. By the time we got off the buses, it looked grim. In the next couple of hours, it became clear that the rocket failed and we never achieved orbit.
Oddly, hearing that the spacecraft hit the ocean near Antarctica made it worse. I had this vision of the system orbiting the Earth - dead and mute - like a modern day Flying Dutchman. Knowing that the hardware I helped design and build had been destroyed on impact made the loss real.
Almost 10 years ago, I was working with a scientist who was also supporting the Mars lander that was lost in 1999. The day after it failed, she told me to always try to enjoy the intellectual challenge of designing a mission and the hardware to make it possible. At the end of the day, that might be all you get. Since then, she has been involved in the incredibly successful Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander. She is working to prepare the Mars Science Laboratory for its 2011 launch.
I hope that her past is my prologue. I hope that the next 10 years bring a productive series of missions to advance our understanding of the carbon cycle - much as the recent Mars missions have advanced our understanding of our solar system's history.
Imagine if you could scoop exactly one million molecules out of the air in front of you (while being careful not to grab any water vapor). Now, start sorting these molecules into different piles. Start with the two most common molecules and you've sorted 99 percent of your sample -- the nitrogen pile will have about 780,000 molecules, and oxygen pile will have about 210,000 molecules. Working on the third most common molecule, argon, gets you a new pile with about 9,000 molecules. Congratulations, you've sorted 99.9 percent of the molecules into just three piles. The remaining 1,000 molecules are called "trace gases." The most famous and the most common trace gas is carbon dioxide, or CO2. Out of the million you had at the beginning, you'll count about 385 CO2 molecules.
Now, imagine repeating this experiment 12 times per second while flying over Earth at more than 16,000 miles per hour. Each of those counts needs to be accurate enough to note the addition or subtraction of one molecule of CO2 per one million of air. This is the experiment that a group of scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory conceived almost 10 years ago. We call it the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, and it is now at the launch pad waiting for its ride into space.
The heart of the mission is a very accurate instrument -- called a "spectrometer" -- tuned to sense the presence of CO2. A spectrometer is a type of camera that splits incoming light into hundreds of different colors and then measures the amount of light in each of these colors. In the case of this mission, the spectrometer measures sunlight that has passed through the atmosphere twice: once on the way down to the surface, and then again on the way up to the orbiting spacecraft. When the light passes through air containing CO2, certain colors are absorbed. The spectrometer creates an image with dark bands where the sunlight is partially or completely missing. This image looks similar to a barcode. Encoded in that barcode is the information to infer how many CO2 molecules the sunlight encountered on its way to the spacecraft.
I joined the project in early 2001 as the lead engineer for the spectrometer. In the eight years that have followed, we've gone from an idea to a fully built and tested system sitting on top of a rocket, ready for launch. Along the way, a group of talented people has put in countless hours designing, building, and testing the system. When doing something for the first time, there are always issues that come up -- some of which look insurmountable at the time. It's been a challenge, but the hard work and creativity of our team saw us through all of them.
Now we are waiting for the payoff -- the first data from space. We've done everything we can to be ready. Now, launch awaits ...
Planets, stars, buildings, cars, you and I, we are all made of the same basic stuff - atoms, the building blocks of matter. The late Carl Sagan famously said "we are star stuff," as the heavy elements in our bodies were all forged in supernovas, the explosions of dying stars. In a real scientific sense, we are one with everything we see in the night sky.
We have since learned that everything we see is awash in another kind of matter, a "dark" matter, made of particles yet to be discovered. Dark matter is all around us, but we cannot see it. Some estimate that a billion dark matter particles whiz through your body every second, but you cannot feel them. We now believe that the universe contains five times more dark matter than ordinary matter. While we all may be made of star stuff, we find that the universe is mostly made of something very different.
Why do we believe that dark matter exists? How can we study something that we cannot see or even feel? And how can we unravel the universe's greatest mystery - what is this dark matter?
The idea of dark matter was born at Caltech in 1933. (Just three years later, JPL would be born there as the "rocket boys" began their first launch experiments.) In observations of a nearby cluster of galaxies named the Coma cluster, Fritz Zwicky calculated that the collective mass of the galaxies was not nearly enough to hold them together in their orbits. He postulated that some other form of matter was present but undetected to account for this "missing mass." Later, in the 1970's and '80's, Vera Rubin similarly found that the arms of spiral galaxies should fly off their cores as they are orbiting much too quickly.
Today dark matter is a widely accepted theory, which explains many of our observations. My colleagues and I at JPL are among those working to reveal and map out dark matter structures. Dark matter is invisible. But astronomers can "see" it in a way and you can too, if you know what to look for! For instance, if you have a wineglass on a table and you look through the glass, the images behind it are distorted. So too when we look through a dense clump of dark matter, we see distorted and even multiple images of galaxies more distant. Matter bends space according to Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, and light follows these bends to produce the distorted images. By studying these "lensed" images, we can reconstruct the shape of the lens, or in our case, the amount and distribution of dark matter in our gravitational lens.
Our observations of dark matter in outer space force particle physicists to revise their theories to explain what we see. Hopefully through their efforts, physicists will soon produce dark matter in the lab, catch and identify a small fraction of that which passes through us, and ultimately explain the relationship between dark matter and "star stuff."
It's an exciting time in Cassini-land these days! We are well into the Equinox Mission, an extension to Cassini's mission that includes seven flybys of the Saturnian moon Enceladus, discovered in July 2005 to be geologically active. Prior to the prime mission, we knew that Enceladus was interesting and unique, and thus planned and executed three targeted flybys for the prime mission. With the tremendous discovery of water plumes at the south pole of this small icy moon (which happened on the second targeted flyby), we planned a more in-depth investigation for the Equinox Mission. And we are well into it! Our first Enceladus flyby of the Equinox Mission was in August, and we had two in October.
My job on Cassini is two-fold: I am on the science planning team, helping to plan out the science activities that occur during each icy moon encounter, and I am on the team for the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph instrument, studying ultraviolet data of the surfaces of these icy moons. So it’s really fantastic to be involved in planning each encounter, and then analyzing data to understand the moons.
In order to learn as much as we can about crazy Enceladus (it's so small and icy -- yet it's got these geysers!), we want to let all of the instruments make measurements, and it isn't possible to simultaneously get measurements from all instruments. (That's just the way the spacecraft is built.) We know that the cameras will tell us a lot about the current and historical geology of the surface, the ultraviolet and infrared imagers will tell us about the surface composition, and the long-wavelength infrared instrument will reveal surface temperatures. These four "remote-sensing" instruments can take data simultaneously. But if we want to get the best data from the "in situ" instruments (like the ion and neutral mass spectrometer and cosmic dust analyzer), we need to orient the spacecraft such that it's nearly impossible to get remote sensing data. So we divide up the flybys and allow many instruments the opportunity to get data. The period around the closest approach during the August flyby (called "E4") was allocated to the remote-sensing instruments -- and this resulted in the highest-resolution images of the active "tiger stripes" ever! (See one of these images here: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA11113) The closest approach of the next Enceladus flyby - called "E5," on October 9 -- took the spacecraft deeper into the south polar plume than ever before. Here the priority was given to the in situ instruments, which obtained great, high-signal data of the plume, telling us about the composition of both the gaseous and particle components. And the October 31 flyby - called "E6" -- was again dedicated to remote-sensing, for a last look at the south pole before it heads mostly into seasonal darkness.
It’s so fortunate that Cassini has multiple opportunities to execute close encounters of an object as dynamic as Enceladus. The Voyager spacecraft had just one shot as they flew through the Saturn system, but Cassini, as an orbiter, gives us the chance to analyze our data, figure out what we’ve learned, and make thoughtful decisions on what experiments we need to make to follow up on those discoveries.
Things aren’t completely within our control, however! For instance, southern summer in the Saturn system is coming to a close, limiting the amount of sunlight illuminating the fascinating south polar region of Enceladus. But there’s plenty of important science to do in the dark with the in situ instruments, as well as the composite infrared spectrometer and radar, which is great. Who knows — we’ll see what the equinox season (and hopefully the following solstice) has in store for us! We may get some surprises!
Winds of charged particles race outwards from the sun at 300,000 miles per hour. They are so faint that, here on the outer edge of the solar system, they would be undetectable if it were not for the very sensitive instruments carried by spacecraft.
From this distant, dark void, the sun is 100 times farther away than it is from Earth. Even so, our star is a million times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star seen from Earth. All around is a near-perfect vacuum, with only the most capable of instruments able to detect an ambient magnetic field that is 200,000 times weaker than the field back on Earth. To top off the loneliness factor, nothing from Earth has ever journeyed this far from home.
This remote zone is the domain now for Voyager 1 and 2. After 31 years of exploration, the twin spacecraft are the elder statesmen of space exploration, robotic envoys in the most distant reaches of our solar system. Voyager 1 is now 107 times farther from the sun than Earth is; Voyager 2 is 87 times farther. It takes about 15 hours for a signal leaving Earth to reach Voyager 1. (By contrast, it takes a little more than 20 minutes for a signal to go to Mars, even when the red planet is farthest from Earth.)
The twin spacecraft do not rest on the laurels of their discoveries at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune - the planets they flew by between 1977 and 1989. In fact, their findings at our solar system’s edge are changing scientists’ theories about what happens “way out there” and how interstellar space affects our solar system.
The Voyagers have shown that the heliosphere - the sun’s protective bubble surrounding our solar system — is not smooth and symmetric, as was originally thought. The robotic team discovered that this bubble is being pushed in and deformed by the pressure from the interstellar magnetic field outside our solar system. Another surprise came when the spacecraft passed an important milestone near the edge of the solar system, called the termination shock. The energy released from the sudden slowing of the sun’s supersonic wind had an unexpected outcome - it was absorbed not by the wind itself, but by ionized atoms that had come from outside our solar system. And inevitably, as theories are shattered in the wind, more questions arise. There are cosmic rays we know come from this distant region, for example, but their origin is yet to be found and explained.
After all this time, Voyager’s discoveries continue to do what they have always done - take us to new places we have never been, and shed light on the how our solar system interacts and interconnects with the surrounding regions of the Milky Way.
Both Voyagers have enough power to run until 2025. Voyager 1 will probably cross into interstellar space by about 2015. At that moment, Voyager 1 will become Earth’s first interstellar spacecraft, leaving the sun behind as it enters the interstellar wind produced by the supernova explosions of other stars.
Until their final transmissions — hopefully many years in the future — the Voyagers still have a long way to go and lots to tell us.
Who ever thought that being in the desert in the middle of summer would be so much fun?!
I'm working on a mission called the Mars Science Laboratory, the next rover that NASA is going to send to Mars. Its mission is to help us find out whether or not Mars might have offered a favorable environment for life at one point in time (read more about the mission).
I'm part of the group designing the mission's entry, descent, and landing phase, also known as the "7 minutes of terror." This is a really exciting part of the mission because we're trying to slow the spacecraft down from over 12,500 mph (about 5 times as fast as a speeding bullet) to a screeching halt in about 7 minutes! To do this, so many things have to go right in such a small amount of time. Once the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere, and because it's going so fast, the spacecraft gets hotter than the surface of the sun. Then we deploy a parachute supersonically (faster than the speed of sound), fire retro-rockets at a very precise altitude, and gently lower the rover to the surface of Mars on a bridle. No one ever said rocket science was easy!
Since so many things need to happen perfectly, we test things here on Earth before we launch the spacecraft to Mars. One of my responsibilities includes field testing the radar, which will tell the spacecraft how far off the ground it is and how fast it is going during its descent. If the radar doesn’t work properly, the spacecraft could fire its rockets at the wrong time and crash on the surface of Mars. That would be a very, very bad day.
To make sure the radar will work on Mars, a group of us went out to the desert two weeks ago to test it out. The weeks leading up to the test were pretty frantic, with numerous hurdles along the way as we were trying to get the system working in the lab. After we got it working, we took it out to the desert where we attached our radar to a cable, which was attached to a pulley, and all of this in turn was suspended between two towers about 400 feet tall. The other end of the cable was attached to a truck. When the truck drove forward, the radar was lowered at about the speed that it will be descending on Mars just prior to landing.
The testing was so successful that we finished a day early, and were able to leave the really hot desert. We ended up with great data that will help us improve our radar so that it will work flawlessly on Mars. The success of this test made the hard work and desert heat all worth it. But when it was all said and done, we were all pretty glad to go back home, rest and then come back to work to start the cycle over for our next two sets of radar tests–on a helicopter and an F-18 jet!
What is Kepler?
Kepler is a mission that is designed to find Earth-sized planets outside our solar system. Specifically, it will look for these rocky planets in the "habitable zone" near their stars — meaning at a distance where liquid water could exist on the surface.
Kepler will accomplish this by monitoring a large set of stars (approximately 100,000) and looking for the signature dip in brightness that indicates that a planet has crossed between the spacecraft and the star. The instrument that detects this dip is called a photometer — literally, a "light meter." It is basically a large telescope that funnels the light from the stars onto a CCD array (similar to the ones used in digital cameras).
By surveying such a large number of stars using this "transit" method, Kepler will be able to determine the frequency of Earth-sized (and larger) planets around a wide variety of stars.
What do I think is cool about this mission?
I love the fact that the Kepler approach - looking for the dips in stellar brightness that occur when a planet passes between the photometer and a star - is so straightforward. It is such a wonderfully simple way to look for planets! Of course in practice, there are plenty of complicating factors that make this a challenging mission to execute. The change in brightness that we are looking for is very small (on the order of 0.01 percent). To make sure we can detect that, we have to carefully control noise in the system - things like electronic noise from reading out the CCDs, smear from tiny motions of the spacecraft, etc. These and other aspects of the mission have provided plenty of challenges to keep things interesting for the design team.
One of my favorite things about the Kepler mission is that the patch of sky we will be surveying is near a particular group of highly recognizable constellations. The stars Kepler will look at are in the area of what is known as the Summer Triangle, a group of constellations - Aquila, Cygnus and Lyra - that are overhead at midnight when viewed from northern latitudes in the summer months. When the scientist team starts identifying planets in our field of view, anyone will be able to go outside, point towards the Summer Triangle and say "they've just discovered a planet over there." To me, there is something about that which will make the discoveries that much more personal.
I am also a huge sci-fi fan and I have always been particularly fascinated by books and movies about how humans might some day colonize other worlds in the galaxy. I think it is fantastic to get to work on a mission that will be looking for planets outside our solar system that are Earth-sized and in a range around their stars that could be habitable; places where such colonization could one day take place... I can't wait to see what we find!
What do I do?
I am a member of the Project System Engineering Team at JPL. This team is responsible for a wide variety of tasks on Kepler, aimed at ensuring the project meets the driving scientific and technological objectives. This often involves checking that the interfaces between the different elements of the project work smoothly. For example, one of our responsibilities is to conduct end-to-end tests of the mission's information system. In this test, we check to make sure that the right commands are being generated to collect data, data is collected using spacecraft hardware, and then the data flows correctly through the ground data system. This lets us verify that the entire data flow chain functions as it should before we launch.
My particular focus has been ensuring that we work out all of the details associated with executing each of the mission phases (the launch phase, the on-orbit checkout period that we call the commissioning phase, and the main data-gathering portion of the mission, which is the science phase). I work closely with my colleagues at NASA Ames, Ball Aerospace and JPL to identify and resolve open issues associated with planning for, testing and eventually executing the activities associated with these phases.
What is happening on the project right now?
The project is in what is known as the Assembly, Test and Launch Operations phase. Right now, the assembled spacecraft and instrument (known collectively as the flight system) is in the middle of the environmental testing campaign at Ball. This involves many hours of running the flight system and monitoring its performance while exposing it to the types of temperatures, pressures and other conditions that it will see in space. The system that will collect and distribute the data is undergoing integrated testing as well, with teams of people working to push test data through all of the various ground interfaces. The operations team — the people who will be responsible for generating and testing commands, monitoring the health and safety of the spacecraft and ensuring that data is collected from it by the Deep Space Network — are undergoing training and getting ready for upcoming mission phase rehearsals that we call "operational readiness tests." Even though we are still several months away from launch, it is a very busy time on the project!
Who is involved?
The principle investigator and the science office that will lead the scientific data analysis are at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. The spacecraft and photometer were built at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colo. The mission operations center is located at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The mission is managed here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
We've been steadily learning about what it takes to run this thing called the Phoenix lander. As expected, not everything has gone exactly as planned. But that in its own way was planned -- we work to maintain flexibility in our schedule and our design, so that we can absorb new things that happen without throwing the whole team into a tizzy! So what have we been doing?
The Robotic Arm Camera on Phoenix captured this image underneath the lander on the fifth Martian day of the mission. The abundance of excavated smooth and level surfaces adds evidence to a hypothesis that the underlying material is an ice table covered by a thin blanket of soil.
The wet chemistry experiment in one of the lander's instruments called the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, also found salts in the soil samples. Salts are only formed when water has been present! So that is another indicator that there was abundant water in this region of Mars. What are these salts? They appear to be chemicals containing sodium, magnesium, potassium and chlorine. The soils were found to be alkaline, with a pH greater than 7 -- similar to soils in the upper dry valleys of Antarctica.
But, like I said, everything hasn't been totally smooth. The team discovered that the Martian soil is lumpy and sticks together. That made the first sample difficult to deliver! So the team thought about how to make the process easier, and we figured out various ways to break up the lumps. We tried three methods: de-lumping, sprinkling and agitation.
De-lumping refers to shaking the acquired material in the scoop by running a Dremel-like tool that vibrates the entire scoop, breaking up clumps. Then there is sprinkling: By running the rasp while slightly tipping the scoop, the team can command Phoenix to send a small shower and sift particles down into the TEGA (Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer ) and MECA instruments rather than dumping a whole load of clumped-up dirt onto each instrument. As for agitation, the TEGA instrument has a method to shake itself -- it has an agitator which shakes the sample loose if anything has stuck to its entry port. The sprinkle and agitation methods have been routinely adopted for sample delivery.
The neat consequence of this is that it solves what had always been our worry about how to deliver the same sample to each instrument for comparison of science results. The sprinkle delivery method enables us to put a large sample into the scoop and deliver part of it to MECA microscopy, part to MECA wet chemistry and part to the TEGA instrument. Same sample problem: solved!!
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! Or in this case, Marsade!
Here we are, four years after the Cassini spacecraft entered orbit around Saturn. We're about to begin the extended mission, termed the Cassini Equinox Mission. Cassini has been a scientifically remarkable mission and a fantastic return on the investment. If you are reading this blog, then you might already know about Cassini's discoveries at Enceladus, Titan, the other icy moons, the rings, the magnetosphere and Saturn itself. But if you're new to following this mission, you can catch up on those discoveries by reading about them here: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/features/feature20080627.cfm.
This great science is accomplished by an international team of scientists and engineers. I am thrilled to be able to carry the scientific reins for Cassini as its incoming project scientist. The project scientist is essentially the mission's chief scientist, who watches out for the overall scientific integrity of the mission.
My own background is in the geology of icy moons of the outer solar system. Though the planets have always enthralled me, I trace this specific icy interest back to a course I took as an undergraduate at Cornell University in about 1984, taught by Carl Sagan and his post-doctoral research associate Reid Thompson, entitled "Ices and Oceans in the Outer Solar System." The course included discussion of Jupiter's moon Europa, which it was thought might have a globe-girdling ocean beneath its icy surface -- an idea that would be further tested by the Galileo spacecraft when it arrived at Jupiter a decade later. We also learned about Saturn's haze-shrouded moon Titan, which might just have seas of organic rain and liquids on its surface -- but we wouldn't know for certain until the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn two decades later. Who could possibly wait so long? And who would have thought that once we all did, both of these seemingly far-fetched ideas would turn out to be correct? (If only Carl and Reid could be here today to know it.)
Two years ago I came to JPL with the goal of getting the next flagship mission to the outer solar system off the ground. It takes a great deal of time and energy to make such a mission a reality. They are relatively expensive and take a long time from concept to completion. But just as others before me -- such as Galileo Project Scientist Torrence Johnson and Cassini Project Scientist Dennis Matson -- have worked to send those missions into space, I would help create the next mission, potentially to orbit Jupiter's moon Europa. Currently I serve as JPL's study scientist for the Europa Orbiter mission concept. This mission concept is in friendly competition with a mission that would orbit Titan. I hope that somehow, in time, we can make both of these spectacular mission concepts come to fruition.
Entering into the wonderland that is Cassini, my eyes are wide open to the science and engineering behind the curtain, while wary of its history and complexity. My operating philosophy is to always be true to the science. With good planning and good fortune, Cassini will keep going down the road for many years to come, following up on its prime mission discoveries and in making new ones that we can't dream of yet.
Stay tuned for more to come. It'll be a great ride!