Tag Archives: NASA

No more driving for Spirit

26 Jan

Artist's rendering of Spirit; Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s the end of an era. The rover team has decided to leave Spirit where she is. Other than getting the solar panels in better position to catch sunlight, the rover will become a stationary science center.

This morning, the NY Times had a story that didn’t sound particularly optimistic. But this afternoon, the rover team made the official announcement.

Spirit might still have interesting science to report. And, oh, yeah, Opportunity is still driving.

Planning Spirit’s escape

11 Jan

Spirit rover's wheels move a little; Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Back to my favorite space topic– the Spirit rover. I’m fascinated by the meticulous science and engineering effort going into an obvious obstacle: a robot stuck in the sand. The only problem? The robot and the sand are millions of miles away.

So far, even though it’s been 8 months, Spirit’s still stuck. But scientists have built animations of how the robot got stuck. They’re working with a model and similar conditions on Earth to figure out how to get Spirit rolling again. [Check out NASA’s video.] At the same time, they note, the nearby soil is rich with minerals that could indicate a watery early Martian history. So in some ways, being stuck is “like your car breaking down at Disneyland.”

But as a science communicator, I’m also glad to highlight the process of science and engineering before we know the outcome. When we tell these problem-solving stories, it’s often in hindsight. New discoveries typically involve years of hard work and months– sometimes years– to finish various steps along the way.

Ultimately, patience and problem-solving often go hand-in-hand.

Keep tabs on Spirit’s progress through NASA’s Free Spirit page.

Hubble: still amazing after all these years

10 Sep
NGC 6302 (Butterfly Nebula, Bug Nebula) Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

NGC 6302 (Butterfly Nebula, Bug Nebula) Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

I love big, beautiful Hubble pictures, and these most recent ones are no exception. When I was working on the new astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory a few years ago, I marveled that I got paid to dig up spectacular images like this one. In a time where basic science rarely makes the local evening news, even these photos got a mention on the 11 pm news last night.

But though I’m awed by the pretty pictures, I’m also amazed that a nearly 20-year-old telescope continues to churn out amazing science and that NASA had the wisdom to continue to service such an incredible eyepiece into the universe. Somehow it generally seems easier to build something new without seeing potential in  a tune-up for an older instrument. (And– just to be clear– I’m not saying that we shouldn’t build the Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope— no relation to Webb of Science, BTW, though no quarrels with sharing a very good name).

I guess the Hubble is also reminding me how valuable refurbishing something old, but made with quality– like a well-made piece of furniture or the Birkenstock sandals I’ve worn to death over the past 4 summers– can be in the long run.

Molecule of the Week: Hydrogen

14 Jun

Though hydrogen is the smallest atom and is perched at the top left of the periodic table, hydrogen in nature exists as two atoms hooked together.

Hydrogen hit the news this weekend as a leak led NASA to scrub the Space Shuttle Endeavor launch:

Hydrogen is as clean as chemical fuels get: burning it produces water, a useful waste product. But just like a possible leak of other fuels including gasoline, hydrogen is a potential safety concern.

Hydrogen and helium (its sister element on the right side of the periodic table) form the basis of new stars. These chemicals rotate and condense, ultimately integrating their nuclei to form larger elements through nuclear fusion and releasing energy.

More Mars Rovers

27 May

The rovers are still my favorite NASA mission, for reasons I’ve already written about. Even if the rovers quit tomorrow, the rover science team of Steve Squyres of Cornell and company would still have decades of data to comb through and analyze. Last Friday, they published more of the Opportunity data in the journal Science (requires subscription) that documents the role that salty, acidic water and wind have played in sculpting the magnificent rock formations in the craters of Meridiani Planum.

Cape St Vincent explored by Opportunity in Victoria Crater, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Cape St Vincent explored by Opportunity in Victoria Crater, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Spirit stuck in the sand, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Spirit stuck in the sand, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

But I still have my soft spot for Spirit, even though that robot is stuck in the sand with another gimpy wheel. The pictures from rover missions are amazing, the science is spectacular, but I’m still floored by the engineering and troubleshooting involved in maneuvering a robot in a harsh environment on a planet 100 million miles away. The mission engineers have managed these problems remotely for more than 5 years– I know my car would need a hand-on tune-up long before that.

That’s not to say that there isn’t hands-on testing involved, and apparently, those steps are underway on the ground at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out of the sand.

Work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out for Spirit, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out for Spirit, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

I’m not a gambling woman, but my (Monopoly) money is on the rover and the engineers.

Check out these news reports for more details:

The New York Times article from May 25

And an article by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s veteran science reporter, David Perlman

Hubble mania

18 May

The repair of the Hubble telescope has been big NASA news, but I’m impressed with the way it’s been covered in the Twitterverse through spacewalk updates, astronaut tweets in orbit, and general chatter.

Hubble telescope, credit: NASA, STScI

Hubble telescope, credit: NASA, STScI

NASA has always had a great website and tends to go the extra mile to communicate what’s going on with the public. As a science journalist, I’ve found that they’re one of the easiest government agencies to work with: they tend to be really good about putting you in touch with scientists who are excited to talk about their work.

But in scanning the NASA twitter feeds today, I was particularly impressed by what twitter brings to the table in terms of public engagement and understanding of science. Here’s an exchange between @NASA and @sweetgreatmom:

@NASA What is the purpose for the thermal blanket?

@sweetgreatmom The blankets protect Hubble against solar degradation and space debris.

Curiosity and public engagement are essential to keeping science important in society. Though I don’t always know exactly what to do with Twitter myself, I’m delighted that it mediates this kind of communication between everyday people (taxpayers who fund this exploration) and the people who carry it out.

@NASA also quotes John Grunsfeld today, one of the astronauts who completed the final spacewalk to repair Hubble today: “Hubble isn’t just a satellite- it’s about humanity’s quest for knowledge.” It’s great that we all get to participate.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration