Live Blog: News Briefing 8 Aug

A note: I don’t think there’s time for me to go back over the first couple of news briefings, so I’ll pick up with the latest. Might review those early ones at a later date. 

Curiosity News Briefing Aug 8 Ustream Rec

We have a new Media Relations rep from JPL today – Veronica McGregor.

Other participants:

  • Jennifer Trosper, Mission Manager, JPL We’ve seen her before. She seems to have an incredible overview of the whole project and swift answer to everything. She’s also a great spokesperson.
  • Justin Maki, Imaging Scientist, JPL He’s new. There’s been a few people in the ‘imaging’ chair over the last few days.
  • John Grotzinger, Project Scientist, Caltech John’s already a favourite of mine. Vaguely Pete Postlethwaite-esque, only somehow more movie-star good looking. Has an old-school science teacher vibe, you get the sense he finds stupid questions a little tiresome. Unfortunately I suspect any science-related question asked of him at a briefing has a high probability of being relatively stupid – as compared to the questions he gets asked during the rest of his day.
  • Mike Malin, Principal Investigator for MARDI & Mastcam, Malin Space Science Systems Mike’s another regular. As near as I can tell Mike’s company designed and built several of the key camera systems for the mission, so he’s an independent contractor. He wears his own company’s shirt. Another great character who seems to love what he does and is just delighted at how well his systems are performing so far.
  • And…wow, this is a long lineup…
  • Don Hassler, Principal Investigator, RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector) Don’s new. RAD is a new system that’s probably just been turned on this last Sol. Bet he’s the jock of the lab. Broad shoulders, square jaw. Wee smile for the camera…


Sounds like it’s been a good day. The very minor issues from yesterday are sorted, which it’s clearly satisfying to report, and various things are in better shape than expected. There’s some exciting imaging planned for the next Sol, and Jennifer’s clearly focussing on a the big software upgrade. that starts in a couple of says.

This software upgrade is scheduled to take 4 full days! Hope they’re not running Windows…

Have to imagine not much else will happen during that time.

But with the rover in good shape, spirits are high as Jennifer hands over to Justin, as imaging is what everyone is waiting for at these briefings…

A sleepy kitten..

After landing Curiosity has been a bit like a kitten, blind at first, then fuzzy vision, eventually getting clearer and clearer. We’re gearing up to the 360-degree colour panorama tomorrow which is about as flash as it gets for arrival imagery. Each day we’re seeing more and more of the surroundings, and of Curiosity herself.

The first new image today is a shot of the mast & NavCam camera’s shadow. It’s the reverse of the sunfinder image. The sunfinder is  a mission critical procedure to lock down the rover’s postion in space and in relation to Earth. Whipping the camera around to shoot the shadow seems a little more whimsical. A bit of a self-portrait, the closest thing to looking in a mirror Curiosity will get.

Even more self-reflective is the polar projection which is the camera looking almost directly down from the mast at Curiosity and turning 360, It’s clever, and great for checking out the gear, but doesn’t have a lot of personality.

Mountains in the mist…

My favourite photo so far is the two hi-res frames of the landscape panorama . It’s the first true point of view shot. You can imagine sitting on the rover, looking out to the rim of Gale crater, in this vast pebble-covered plain. Mars is a world. A barren world, but with promise and potential. The distant mountains of the crater rim just call to be explored. We’re not heading that way, though…

In the foreground is the most interesting thing and possibly a first science target. Deep scars blasted into the Martian surface by Skycrane’s thrusters as it lowered Curiosity. They may have cut through to the bedrock, which must have the geologists craning their necks trying to peer in.

John Grotzinger calls the dusty haze around the mountains “LA smog”. First chuckle of the briefing.

Freaking out the locals…

From the surface we’re back up in orbit as Mike Malin intros an image sequence from one of the orbiters. They’ve found – without really looking – the impacts of the tungsten ballast masses that were ejected during the descent. The surface of the planet doesn’t change that frequently apparently, so a little line of impacts from a bunch of heavy metal slugs thumping into the ground at extreme velocity tend to get noticed.

If there were little Martians and they’d been anywhere near that spot…there may have been a few more little slugs dropped to the ground. Seeing the skycrane dropping Curiosity in would’ve been astonishing. Just about getting thwapped by the ballast masses  as they shook the ground under your tentacles would be a different order of experience.

Mike also teases us with a couple of full colour high resolution images – one from several kilometres up just after the heatshield detached, and one after landing of the surface directly under Curiosity. The level of detail is amazing. When this stuff starts coming back in bulk this will truly be a new era in terms of our relationship with a solar neighbour, and space in general.











The jock turns out to be the biggest nerd of all. In a good way.

As he notes, he has to compete with Mike’s swish hi-res images, with his data-driven Radiation Assessment Detector. But, in his quiet way, Don points out that this is quite historic data – the first radiation measurement from the surface of another planet.

As it turns out, this sounds like its actually the kind of science that it was worth going millions of miles and spending billions of dollars for. Understanding the radiation background gives us insight into the historic potential of microbial life and the future parameters of manned exploration. Yes, that is clearly the long view.

The peanut press gallery

It’s question time and there’s the usual selection of hopeful observations from science journalists with aspirations to being scientists, mis-hearings from ESOL press and everyone hoping one of the scientists will tell them : ” Good question.”

Gold star for tonight goes to Emily Lackdawalla, from The Planetary Society who wants to know if the scientists are more immediately interested in surface material that has been distrubed and excavated by the thrusters, or undisturbed material further away.

Not just good – Dr Grotzinger calls it a “Great question.” because that’s exactly what his team are discussing.

But Dr John Grotzinger just misses out on presenter of the night to the new guy, Don Hessler, who not only held his own against the high-res photography, but scored chuckle of the night with an ad-lib on the back of Dr John’s observation that opinions differ as to how hard a material has to be to be classified a “rock”.

“So what is the difference between a rock and a hard place?”

And that’s how a cosmic radiation expert slam dunks a geology professor on his home court.


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