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News Update Archive

March 2000

Week Ending March 31, 2000

Well, the event we've been expecting has finally happened... the Mars '01 Lander mission has been cancelled. Even though we expected it, and even though it's the right thing for NASA to do, it still isn't easy to take. We've been working on our hardware for years now, and to have our ride to Mars disappear just twelve months before launch is hard.

It sure isn't as hard as what happened to the Mars Polar Lander team, though.

Space exploration is an unforgiving business. "One strike and you're out", as Tom Young put it when his committee reported last week on what has been wrong with the Mars program. After everything that has happened, what's best for the nation's space program, and what's best for us, is to wait. Wait a little bit while NASA comes up with a more reliable way to land hardware on Mars. Wait a little bit to take a good hard look at our own work, and to make sure that we've done as good a job as we need to in a one-strike-you're-out business. We think our stuff is about as good as it could possibly be, but another good hard look at everything we've done sure won't hurt.

So we'll wait. Right now, we don't even know when we'll fly. With Mars launch opportunities only every 26 months, the summer of 2003 looks like our next reasonable shot at it. NASA has told us to finish up our instruments, and that they'll fly them as soon as they can. So all we can do now is keep pushing. We'll be ready when the time comes.

Week Ending March 24, 2000

We had a great week. There is a lot of news, but the big event for us was the first real full-up test of Pancam. It's together in all its glory now, in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at JPL, and on Thursday and Friday the past week we took our first real panoramic images with it. It's going to take a lot of time to put them together to make a true panorama, but even a quick first look suggests it's going to be really good. We'll put the images up on this site as soon as they're ready for prime time.

Week Ending March 17, 2000

Despite the uncertainty about when we're going to fly, testing goes forward. This week, the focus has been on the Marie Curie rover. It carries our APXS instrument, and this week it has been in "thermal vac" testing, experiencing the temperatures and pressures it'll see on the way to Mars and on the martian surface. We expected this test to go pretty well... after all, Marie Curie is a copy of the Sojourner rover that did so well on Mars Pathfinder. Still, it's always nerve-wracking when you do something like this to a piece of hardware you've worked so hard on. The test isn't over yet, but so far the APXS has behaved like a champ, and we're keeping our fingers crossed.

Week Ending March 10, 2000

Well, after lots of thought and analysis, we've decided to take the easy way out of that problem that we found in the Pancam cable a few weeks back. It was a sophisticated cable called a "flexprint", and the elegant solution would have been to correct the design problems, build another one, and make it work. The easy way, though, is just to replace it with conventional cabling... in other words, plain old wires. It'll be a little heavier than the old design, but it's easy, it's cheap, and we know it'll work. And at this stage of a project, sometimes you just go with what you know will work!
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February 2000

Week Ending February 26, 2000

Well, this week was a good one for a change. We still have the problem with the Pancam cable, but all of the other instruments have now passed the electromagnetic cleanliness tests with flying colors. We still don't know when we're going to fly, or on what spacecraft, but the instruments are going to be ready to go when the opportunity arises.

Week Ending February 18, 2000

We didn't have a very good week. This was the week that we were planning to do our first big test of all the APEX hardware together. The test is called EMC, for "electromagnetic cleanliness". Basically, it means making sure all of the pieces work together without creating any electrical interference for one another. Problem was, we never really got to do all the testing we had hoped to do. Every piece of APEX hardware had been tested before this week, except for one cable that runs up the outside of the Pancam mast. Well, it turns out that that cable has some real problems with it, and the problems kept us from getting a lot of the testing done. We'll be able to build a new cable and fix it, but it's one of those setbacks you can hit at this stage of the game.

Week Ending February 11, 2000

We had a bit of a slow week for a change. With all the APEX instruments now delivered to JPL, our focus has turned to getting them hooked up together and tested. A lot of this past week was spent on software work. The next big event happens this coming week: our big "electromagnetic interference" (EMI) test. What we do in this test is put all the instruments and radio transmitters onto a mockup of the lander deck, and then operate them individually and together, checking to see that stray electromagnetic signals from one piece of hardware don't mess up what another piece of hardware is trying to do. We're hoping to find no unpleasant surprises!

Week Ending February 4, 2000

The Mössbauer Spectrometer is at JPL, and it works! Goestar Klingelhoefer flew the sensor head in from Germany early in the week, and spent several days getting it hooked up with the electronics. There were some problems at first, and by the middle of the week we were a little bit worried. A phone call to Ralf and Bodo in Mainz cleared things up, though... it was just a software problem that was easy to fix. A few minor changes, and the whole setup was working perfectly. This is a very big milestone for us, since it means that all the APEX instruments are now built and delivered to JPL. We still don't know if we're going to launch them next year or not, but we're on track to do it if the opportunity comes.
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January 2000

Week Ending January 28, 2000

It has been an interesting week, to say the least! The APEX news is that we've finally wrapped up the testing of the Pancam cameras, and we're now ready to start putting them on the mast. The big Mars news is that it sounds like there's a slim chance that the Mars Polar Lander team may have heard from their spacecraft! It's far from certain, but there's at least a chance that the spacecraft was still alive weeks after it landed. Getting any data back from it looks like a real long shot, but it'd be great just to know it got onto the surface in one piece. Watch the Mars Polar Lander website for details.

Week Ending January 22, 2000

We're still not sure what's going to happen with the '01 mission, but other than that we had a great week. The biggest news of the week is probably that the Mössbauer spectrometer sensor head passed its vibration test, and is now only about a week or so away from delivery. The other big accomplishment was that the Pancam mast has been put together, and we've put it through its first motion tests. The tests went beautifully... it was nice to see the hardware in action!

Week Ending January 14, 2000

NASA's efforts to figure out how to restructure the Mars Exploration program continue. We still don't know what it's going to look like... only that it's going to be different from that timeline you see over there to the left!

For now, we're just focussing on getting the APEX instruments done, so that they'll be ready to fly when the opportunity comes. The Pancam mast is all assembled now, and early last week we deployed it for the first time... made it stand up just like we will right after landing. The cameras are finished now too, and we should have them on the mast within the next few weeks.

Week Ending January 1, 2000

The last couple of weeks have been pretty quiet due to the holidays. We're still waiting to see what the new Mars program will look like after the loss of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander. One piece of really good news is that NASA has appointed a blue-ribbon panel to look at what happened to the missions we just lost, and what to do about the future ones. It's a very good group, chaired by Tom Young. Tom is a member of the NASA Advisory Council, a former director of Goddard Space Flight Center, and a former executive with the Martin Marietta corporation. He also played a big role in the Viking project back in the '70's, so he knows what it takes to be successful in exploring Mars. It'll be very interesting over the coming weeks to see what kinds of changes this group comes up with.
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