Eyes on the Solar System – Mars EDL

This is just amazing.

They spoke about it at the last briefing. It’s part of NASA’s full 3-dimensional solar system simulation, Eyes on the Solar System, which includes real-time (or past & future) trajectories for not just every planet, but every spacecraft as well.

You can pretty much zoom anywhere in space & time within the bounds of the solar system.

It takes a bit of grunt to run – my laptop at home has issues – but it’s very, very worth it.


They’ve packaged the Entry, Descent & Landing sequence of MSL into it’s own easily accessible preset – the link above. You can watch, pause, ffwd, rewind etc the entire process, all the sequences and separations, at almost any speed, with a beautifully clear animation you can swoop around in.

Plus there’s a full telemetric readout. Speed, altitude, time to major events etc, etc.

It’s stunning.

According the engineers the current setup was the prediction and is about 0.6 sec out from the actual events, and a few hundred metres to one side in the landing zone. Once the full detailed telemetry from the craft is relayed and processed, they will update the simulation so that it actually reflects the historical data.

Hats off.


Warning: Justice is not done by this screenshot…


Covered in Mars…


One of the latest high-res self-assesment shots shows a bunch of clods cluttering up the top deck of JPL’s beautiful, clean rover. Nothing to worry about operationally, they tell us, but it must be terribly frustrating to be 80 million kilometres from being able to just brush it off!

Especially for these guys…


At first thought you’d expect the wind might clear it off eventually. But I’m not so sure… While Mars has a lot of wind, it’s atmosphere is only 1% as dense as ours, so that wind is incredibly thin.

Hence them being able to deploy a parachute at Mach 2 or something during descent.

Imagine a fine mist or fog as compared to the ocean, that’s about the relative density of Mars’ atmosphere to ours*. So the wind has as much chance of blowing those chunks of dirt off Curiosity as a middle-aged man in an easy chair does of floating on a cloud.

Wait, what?!


*He says with absolutely no authority or calculation, but, y’know, that sort of territory…

Apologies to the members of the press

Mission Management, (my partner) pointed out that I was somewhat uncharitable to the press gallery in my last post. Fair enough. My only excuse is I was in a hurry to finish.

I want to be clear that there are many, many dedicated, talented professionals in the press pack with a far, far deeper appreciation if the events than I, and they have my respect.

I do find the relationship between the briefing reps and the journalists occasionally entertaining, so there might be a few more jokes, but please rest assured they are underwritten with a great deal of respect.

There. More news & pics coming…

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.

The Mission begins… (mine, not Curiosity’s )


The Background…

I’m not sure I was even aware of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, until last week. I’d heard of Spirit and Opportunity, the little rovers that went up some years ago (although I had no idea the mission was eight years old and still roving…), but until the news broke I had no idea there was a car-sized mobile laboratory being delivered to the red planet.

All of a sudden my inner ten-year-old woke up and, like hundreds of thousands worldwide, I got my space geek on.

Mission research…

My first real contact was through this astonishing video which cuts between Jet Propulsion Laboratories mission control and an animated visualisation during EDL – Entry, Descent & Landing of the craft. I didn’t watch the live feed, though I’ve since gone back. It’s an amazing moment, rich with the very best of human endeavour and emotion.

Mission orders…

I was hooked. I started watching the hour long daily press briefings online and found them fascinating. Not just the science and engineering – which is incredible – but the personalities of the scientists and engineers themselves who speak for the mission and the huge team behind it. I hope to introduce some of these people and why they’re fascinating in the course of this blog…

Anyway, I was rabbiting on to my partner one evening about something that was said at a briefing, showing her images form the NASA app on my phone and wondering aloud how I was going to fit daily hour-long briefings into my life when she said:

“If you’re that interested, you should write a blog.”

A typically wise suggestion on many levels.

Mission parameters…

I’m not a scientist. I am, (appropriately enough I suppose), curious.

I don’t intend to analyse the technical and scientific information Curiosity imparts. There are many, manymany more qualified people doing that for you, some of whom sit in those briefings and ask questions.

What I’d like to do is share some of the moments that inspire, intrigue or make me laugh about this adventure, as I connect with it through the power of the web, and NASA’s generally excellent use of it. As they said in the control room, in a line intended – and worthy – to go down in history:

“Now let’s see where Curiosity takes us.”

JPL engineers get their first glimpse of this blog

JPL engineers get their first glimpse of this blog