I was in southern California last weekend in what was part vacation and part research which took me to a few amazing astronomy sites in the area. All were pretty awesome, but none were quite as cutting edge as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in not-so-sunny Pasadena! (Seriously, the day I visited it was raining buckets and 60 degrees- I think the good weather thing is a myth.)
So what goes on at JPL, and why is a visit there so exciting? Well, in short, if you picture all the stuff NASA does, from human spaceflight to space telescopes and probes, JPL is the part that builds and runs all the unmanned scientific missions such as the Mars rovers. Virtually every single image of faraway planets that has made you stop and say “wow!” has passed through the control room pictured above, which is the heart of the Deep Space Network that detects signals from all those ambassadors from Earth millions or even billions of miles from home.
By the way, after seeing it the Ham radio dork in me has a huge urge to run away to work on the Deep Space Network. They use giant 70m radio dishes around the world to “hear” our missions and communicate with them! If NASA wasn’t such a politically volatile place to work I’d seriously consider it…
To begin at the beginning, JPL became the site for all this rocketry thanks to Explorer 1, America’s first space satellite launched on February 1, 1958. (JPL workers are quick to point out that they could have launched the world’s first satellite ahead of the Russians, it’s just it was an army project at the time and the administration at the time didn’t want that association.) When NASA got created the site of JPL naturally became part, though I was curious to learn that they got the name “Jet Propulsion Laboratory” despite the fact that they’ve never done jet technology there, just rockets! Apparently in a bit of a PR move the then-director figured jets were more futuristic at the time than rockets, plus the name had a better ring to it, so JPL it became.
Anyway, you can’t begin to describe just how much amazing science has come out of JPL because, as I’ve said, virtually every deep space mission has originated here. So needless to say there are lots of models around the place of the old and current missions and honestly I was amazed to see how big most of them were! (I suppose you always think they’re small because the artist’s conception pictures put them next to very big planets.) The above is a model of Voyager, one of two probes which was the first to reach the planets of the outer Solar System. Amazingly we still get data from the Voyager missions- even after nearly 40 years and billions of kilometers traveled– and giving scientists data about what it’s like at the very edge of the Solar System. Clearly JPL does not mess around when it comes to product quality.
The main JPL success of the past decade though is, of course, the Mars rovers that are so cute and cuddly Disney made a movie about them. (Part of me during WALL-E was thinking “ha, see, I’m not the only one who finds them cute!!”) They got bonus points for the great science they do too like discovering Mars used to have oceans! In the top picture the rover you see is Sojourner, the baby prototype rover from the 1990s, and Spirit which landed some years ago but is no longer operational. Her twin Opportunity is still chugging along though… And in the picture below it might be hard to tell from the scale but that’s their big brother Curiosity, who is the size of a car and set to launch next year!
And, of course, this being JPL we got to actually go and see them building it!
This isn’t quite the world’s largest clean room, that honor goes to the one in Maryland where they assembled Hubble, but it’s pretty close. In short this next rover is a $2.3 billion project that is five times more massive than the last rovers with ten times more scientific equipment, but hopefully the payoff will be finding out just what sorts of organic compounds there are on Mars and how habitable the planet is (a fancy way of saying “we’re trying to find life but we’re covering our bases in case we don’t”).
The equipment in the picture looks a bit helter-skelter, but one interesting thing to remember is it all needs to be assembled within the next few months to make the launch date at the end of 2011. This is because thanks to orbital mechanics works is you have a launch window of about two months and if you don’t make it you need to wait two and a half years, plus of course several months it takes to get there. So pretty soon the clean room technicians will be on triple shifts to get the thing done and the rover will hopefully be placed on a truck and sped to Edwards Air Force Base in the dead of the night on a non-disclosed date, as this being California you always have to deal with some crazies. Apparently the big protest this time around is how the rover has a small plutonium reactor on board to power it (no solar panels this time, you just couldn’t power all the instruments), and we clearly all know nuclear power is TEH EVIL or something.
The tres de la resistance, what the Mars rover looks like right now! (Not the best shot unfortunately, but the wheels prove I’m not lying.) Frankly I spent a lot of time staring and thinking about how in a few years time this robot will be trundling along on an alien planet with red dirt and brown sky, and along the way will be looking for the clues that answer some of the most fundamental questions in science. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it is we do it so well and it’s so commonplace that hardly anyone thinks about it, though I do advise you to think about it enough to stop and send your name to Mars.
As a final note, if you’re considering accepting a job at JPL you should take it if only because it turns out the employees have “my other car is on Mars!” bumper stickers. Being at the forefront of human knowledge is, of course, an incidental bonus.