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News Update Archive

June 2002

Week Ending June 29, 2002

We've just gotten the first pictures taken by our Microscopic Imager, and they're fantastic! The picture that you see shows the surface of a rock, and covers an area about 3 centimeters (a little over an inch) across. You can see features in the images down to considerably less than 100 micrometers in size... less than the width of a human hair. It's really exciting to start seeing data like this, and we can't help but think what it's going to feel like the first time we see Mars at this scale.

Week Ending June 22, 2002

What a week... the APXS is done and Pancam is taking pictures!

After a huge amount of work over in Germany, Rudi and Ralf came over with two completed APXS instruments this week. The electronics boards for each one are the ones that are actually going to Mars, and the team at JPL should start working with them sometime this week. The sensor heads -- the part that goes out on the arm -- that they brought over are spare units. We can fly these spares if we have to, but we're planning on flying sensor heads that are still back in Germany and about to begin months of testing. If all that testing goes well, we'll swap the spare sensor head with the flight units sometime in the fall.

And the Pancam pictures are beautiful! We just got the first Pancam put together early last week, and it took a perfect picture the first time we pushed the button. Amazing. This one is an engineering model, so it's not going to Mars either. But the flight cameras are identical to it, and those will be coming together over the next few weeks. As soon as we have some good pictures from those, we'll put 'em on this web site for the world to see.

Week Ending June 15, 2002

We have finally finished torturing Mini-TES.

Before you can put anything on top of a rocket, you have to test it to make sure it can withstand all the rigors of spaceflight. It's necessary, but that doesn't mean it's fun. Over the past couple of weeks, we've finally finished doing all the testing we need to do on Mini-TES. It's scary stuff. The week before last, we did a test where we simulate what happens when you fire a "pyrotechnic" device on the rover. These are little explosive devices that are used to do things like release the instrument arm or the camera mast right after we land. They're very small explosions, but they're explosions nonetheless, and we have to make sure that when we fire them off we won't hurt Mini-TES. We simulated it, and nothing broke.

Just as scary was the test that simulates landing. Even though our lander is cushioned by airbags, it still hits the martian surface pretty hard. So, of course, we have to make sure Mini-TES can survive that too. We don't do this by putting it in a lander and dropping it... we do it by putting it into a giant centrifuge, and spinning it until it feels stresses even worse than what it'll feel on landing. We survived that too, thank goodness, and the torture testing of Mini-TES is now over.

Except, of course, next year when we put 'em both on real rockets and send them off to Mars...

Week Ending June 8, 2002

We had a breakthrough in the development of our RAT this week. RAT stands for Rock Abrasion Tool, and it's what we'll use to grind the dusty and weathered surfaces off of martian rocks, exposing fresh rock underneath. It works well, and the RAT can grind about half a centimeter into even very hard rock. The problem, though, is that sometimes the dust created by all that grinding winds up filling the hole. And that's not exactly where we want dust to be, since the whole point of the RAT is to expose the clean rock underneath.

So what to do? We're running out of time, and big design changes are out of the question at this point. The guys at Honeybee Robotics went to work on it, and came up with a simple solution that sounded like it ought to work: A new brush built into the RAT. The RAT already has a part that revolves slowly as the grinding takes place, and if we mounted a brush to this part and then spun it for awhile after the grinding was done, we figured that maybe that would do the trick. Turns out that it does. On Thursday we ran a test that was a duplicate of one we had done several weeks ago that had filled the hole with dust. The new brush cleared things right out, producing a nice clean rock surface. And it's a good thing it worked, too, since we've got to start bolting RATs onto rovers in not too many more weeks. It doesn't matter how clever you are if you run out of time before you run out of ideas.

Week Ending June 1, 2002

Our focus this week has been the mad rush to finish up our first set of APXS instruments and get them delivered to JPL. This is a complicated business, because we have so many instruments to build. On the one hand, JPL needs some instruments right away, to start putting them into the rovers and testing the whole system to see if it works. On the other hand, each APXS that we're actually going to fly to Mars requires many, many months of testing back in Germany before it's ready to fly. JPL needs instruments now, but the flight instruments have to stay in Germany until sometime this fall.

So what do we do? We build twice as many instruments. Right now, Rudi and Ralf are scrambling to finish up the first set of instruments, which should go to JPL next week. These will go onto the rovers temporarily. Then, after a day or two to catch their breath, Rudi and Ralf will start assembling the next pair... the ones that'll actually go to Mars. These will be tested over a long work-filled summer in Mainz, and then get delivered to JPL and swapped with the other ones sometime this fall.

It's twice as many instruments, and an awful lot of work, but it's the only way to do it when the schedule is so tight.


May 2002

Week Ending May 25, 2002

The big news this week has been all about Mini-TES. The tin whisker problem that we had a few weeks ago now seems to be officially behind us. We had to do a pretty scary repair job on Mini-TES 2 to fix this, but it looks like the fix worked. We just finished putting the instrument through some pretty thorough "thermal vacuum" testing in Santa Barbara, subjecting it to the same kinds of temperatures it will experience on Mars. The news was as good as it possibly could have been -- even after the repairs, the instrument works as well as it ever did. So Mini-TES 2 now has a clean bill of health.

Of course, things are never simple. Mini-TES 2 may be healthy, but we've known for awhile that we're also going to have to do a little bit of repair work on Mini-TES 1, and the time for that has come. This isn't nearly as big a deal as the tin whisker job was; we just have to put one new wire in, to make the design a little safer and more reliable than it is now. But you have to do that sort of thing very carefully, which means a trip to Santa Barbara. So Mini-TES 2 heads back down the coast, Mini-TES 1 heads back up the coast, and we keep sweating just a little bit.

Week Ending May 18, 2002

We're finally building cameras! It seemed like this day would never come, but it's finally here. Most parts of our two cameras -- Pancam and the Microscopic Imager, have been coming along fine. The electronics, though, have been giving us fits. We were still troubleshooting problems as recently as a week ago, but Arsham and the rest of the camera electronics guys at JPL have been doing a great job, and now seem to have chased down the last major problems and killed them off.

So now it's time to build a lot of hardware. The first batch of cameras, which are being put together now, will be what we call Engineering Models. They're essentially identical to the flight cameras, but instead of sending them to Mars we test the heck out of them, to make absolutely certain that the design is sound. We should have them in our hands this coming week. If all goes well, the real flight cameras -- the ones that really go to Mars -- will start coming together in a little over a week.

Week Ending May 11, 2002

Good news and bad news on the cameras this week. The good news is that we finally seem to have our electronics boards built. This has been an epic struggle, with one set of boards after another having some kind of problem that has made it impossible for us to fly them. We've finally got a good set of boards now -- ones that are good enough to go to Mars.

That's the good news. The bad news is that we're still having little problems with the electronics. They're not serious problems, or at least they don't seem to be. In fact, we're pretty sure we could fly things just as they are, and still take some very good pictures. But things still aren't quite right, and "not quite right" is not where we want to be for something as important as our cameras.

The problem now isn't the boards. The problem is somewhere in all the dozens of little electronics parts that go on the boards. We're going to find it, probably within the next few days. But we're going to feel an awful lot lot better if we can find it, and fix it, sooner rather than later.

Week Ending May 4, 2002

The surgery on our Mini-TES 2 instrument is over, and it seems to have gone well. We had to do this to fix the "tin whiskers" problem that I wrote about last week. It was a pretty scary operation. The guys in Santa Barbara had to open up the instrument, and then cut into the steel outer shell of one of the parts on the inside. The critical trick was to keep from getting little metal shavings loose inside the instrument -- those could be even worse than the tin whiskers we're trying to prevent! They cut into it nice and clean, and on Friday they coated the inside of the part with a spray-on plastic that should solve the whisker problem.

We're not done yet, though. When you do something that severe to a piece of flight hardware, you have to do a lot of testing afterwards to make sure that nothing bad happened. So now we're in for more vibration testing, more thermal testing, and so forth. We're not out of the woods yet, but at least the really scary part seems to be over.


April 2002

Week Ending April 27, 2002

We've uncovered a very troubling problem with Mini-TES 2: we're afraid that it might grow whiskers.

What we have learned, just recently, is that one of the electronic parts that we used deep inside Mini-TES 2 was made using some pure tin. And pure tin, it turns out, can do some very strange things. What it does, under certain conditions, is develop microscopic "whiskers"... tiny needle-like growths of metal that protrude out from the tin surface. They're nasty things to have inside a sensitive piece of electrical equipment. If they grow too far, or if they break off and start rattling around, you can get a short circuit. And then poof, no more instrument.

So what do we do? The thing to do, it turns out, is to open up the part that has the tin in it, and then coat the inside with a kind of spray-on plastic. That'll help keep tin whiskers from growing, and also will hold any ones that do grow in place so they can't cause any mischief.

You can imagine that cracking open an instrument that we thought was all done is not exactly high on the list of things we'd like to do! But we have to do it, and Mini-TES 2 is back up in Santa Barbara now, ready to undergo a little minor surgery.

Week Ending April 20, 2002

So much happened this week that it's impossible to pick one thing to write about. The electronics boards for the APXS passed their vibration tests in Berlin. We finished fixing the problem with the Mössbauer spectrometer sensor heads that popped up during their vibration tests last month. The motors that we've been waiting months for that go in the RAT finally arrived. A problem came up in our camera electronics board that's going to cost us another two or three week delay that we can barely afford. And we discovered a problem with one of the electronic parts inside Mini-TES 2 that we haven't figured out how to fix yet. It was quite a week! We're hoping for a slightly calmer one this week, but we're not counting on it.

Week Ending April 13, 2002

When the schedule starts to get tight on a project like this, sometimes you have to start making some tough choices. And our schedule is getting very tight indeed.

There's a small problem in the electronics of our cameras, and its result is that the pictures are a little bit more "noisy" than we'd like them to be. Imagine a TV picture with some "static" in it. The static is there in our cameras at a level far too low for the eye to see, but we know it's there.

Being fussy scientists and engineers, we'd love to get rid of that little bit of noise. And we know how to do it. But the changes we'd have to make would take something like five to ten days. And our camera schedule is so tight now that any time we take to make the cameras a little bit better will come out of the time we need for critical testing over the coming months. So we have a choice: a little more noise than we'd like, or five to ten days out of our schedule. There's a saying in this business that "better is the enemy of good enough". And when the schedule is as tight as ours is, "good enough" starts to look pretty good.

Week Ending April 6, 2002

We're working on a little design change to the RAT that should make a big difference in how it works. The Rock Abrasion Tool (a.k.a. "the RAT") is very good at grinding through rock. But all that grinding makes some rock dust, and the dust tends to get all over things. A problem that we've been worried about is that there might be some dust left on the rock surface after the RAT is done grinding away at it. Two of our instruments -- the APXS and the Mössbauer Spectrometer -- wouldn't be bothered by this. But the Microscopic Imager takes close-up pictures, and those pictures could be pretty useless if there's lots of dust on the rock.

The old design of the RAT has two grinding wheels. What we've found after lots of testing is that the RAT works just about as well with one wheel as it does with two. So we're keeping one grinding wheel, but considering replacing the other with a brush that whisks away the dust, keeping the surface clean and beautiful. There's still more testing to be done, but if it works it should make for some great closeup pictures of the insides of martian rocks.

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