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News Update Archive

June 2003

Week Ending June 28, 2003

We're waiting. The launch window for Opportunity opened almost a week ago, but right now we're still on the ground in Florida. The problem is with our launch vehicle. It has a layer of insulation — made out of cork, believe it or not — that protects the skin of the rocket from being heated too much as it ascends through the dense lower part of the Earth's atmosphere. Some of this insulation came unglued from the rocket's skin, and they've got to replace it. This is pretty low-tech stuff, gluing cork to metal... sometimes even rocket science isn't rocket science. But it's got to be done right, and we can't fly until everybody is 100% convinced that it's safe to do so. They're working as fast as they can out on the launch pad, and all we can do is be patient.

So we wait.

Week Ending June 21, 2003

This was a good-news/bad-news week... Good news for Spirit and bad news for Opportunity.

The good news for Spirit is that we had a good TCM-1. "TCM" stands for "trajectory correction maneuver", and this was our first one. When we launch, the spacecraft is headed in the general direction of Mars, but it's not on a path that will take it directly to the planet. There are several reasons for this, one of which is simply that the rocket by itself isn't accurate enough to do that. The rocket's main job is to get us going really fast, not necessarily to get us going precisely to Mars.

In a trajectory correction maneuver, we use tiny rocket thrusters on the spacecraft to give it a little nudge in just the right direction. We gave it its first nudge on Friday, and that nudge put us much, much closer to the path that'll get us to Gusev Crater next January. Everything seems to have gone according to plan... "right down the pipe" as the space navigators like to put it.

The bad news was on Opportunity, which is still on the ground in Florida. Each Delta rocket has a little bit of insulation on the outside of it, to keep the rocket temperature just right as it rises through the Earth's atmosphere. Unfortunately, the insulation on the Opportunity rocket is cracking in a few places. We know why it's cracking, and we know how to fix it. But you have to do this sort of fix very carefully, and it's going to take several days to get the job done right. So the launch date has slipped to Saturday night at the earliest. Just one of the things you have to deal with when you're trying to get a precious piece of hardware like Opportunity safely on its way to Mars.

Week Ending June 14, 2003

We're flying. Spirit was launched on Tuesday and so far she's behaving beautifully.

It's always a little nerve-wracking when you put a new spacecraft out into space for the first time. It's in the environment that it was designed for, of course, so you expect things to go reasonably well. Still, it's not uncommon for problems to pop up, both big and small, when you first get it out there.

The good news is that Spirit has been a very sweet little spacecraft so far. The few problems that we have had have been very minor. All in all, we've had about as good a first week in space as you could ever hope for.

And it's a good thing too, since we hardly have time to rest on our laurels. It's almost time for our other rover, Opportunity, to leave the nest. Opportunity will take flight just after midnight next Wednesday, and it should be another spectacular show. Watch this website for pictures and news updates.

June 10, 2003

Spirit lifted off into a hazy blue sky right on time this afternoon. The Delta II gave us a beautiful ride, and Canberra picked up the spacecraft on schedule. Last I heard we had good attitude, good power from the arrays, batteries coming up, and strong telemetry. We're on our way to Mars.

Week Ending June 7, 2003

Well, we scrubbed today. That happens a lot in the rocket business. A scrub is when you have to cancel a launch late in the countdown and try again another day. Scrubs happen for all kinds of reasons. Usually it's weather, and that's what got us today.

Early this morning it was beautiful on the Florida coast. I watched dawn come up over Pad 17A, and as the sun's first rays hit the rocket it was a lovely thing to see.

It would have been nice if we could have gone right then, but you can't just launch a rocket whenever you want to. Because the Earth is always spinning, you need to wait until it's at just the right point in its spin to launch it. Otherwise, you'd be headed off in the wrong direction. For us, the right time of day today to go to Mars was 2:05:55 PM Eastern Daylight Time. But when the weather guys looked at their radars a couple of hours before liftoff, they could see some very bad stuff headed our way, and a scrub was called. And sure enough, when launch time came around there were some very nasty clouds hanging over the pad.

You might think it'd be frustrating when something like this happens, but it really isn't. We've waited so long to fly these things that another day doesn't seem like much. And with $400 million worth of hardware out on the pad, the thing we really don't want anybody to do is take chances. So we'll try again tomorrow.

May 2003

Week Ending May 31, 2003

This is it: show time for MER-A. The spacecraft is on the launch pad, healthy and ready to fly. The protective fairing that goes around it at the top of the rocket was put in place over the weekend. We're working our way through all the pre-launch paperwork and reviews... you can't be too careful about this kind of thing! But once that's all done, we'll be ready to go. And when it happens, years of work in preparation for flight will come to a thundering conclusion as our first Delta II climbs off of pad 17A. I know what it's going to look like, since I've been to Delta launches before. But I have no idea how it's going to feel.

Week Ending May 24, 2003

We're less than two weeks from our first launch now, and the final preparation of the hardware for flight is almost done. The big event of this past week was the mating of the MER-A spacecraft to the third stage of the Delta II rocket. This isn't done out at the launch pad. Instead, they bring the whole third stage of the Delta indoors, into what's called the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Center. The fact that they bring a whole live rocket motor into the room is why it's called the hazardous servicing facility! The MER-A spacecraft, which will be the first to launch, was mated to the third stage on Friday, without a hitch. And early this coming week the whole spacecraft-plus-third-stage "stack" will be driven slowly and carefully out to launch pad 17A, hoisted up the tower by a big crane, and mounted on top of the rocket.

Week Ending May 17, 2003

It's getting very close now. The rockets are on the launch pads, and you can almost feel the pace accelerating. This week, the solid rocket motors were put onto the outside of the Delta II rocket that will launch MER-A. This picture shows our first rocket on pad 17A at Kennedy Space Center. In the background you can see three of the white motors already on the vehicle. One more can be seen on the cart in the foreground, about ready to go onto it. Once everything is all put together, there will be nine of those white motors, all clustered around the base of the rocket. See our launch pages to learn more.

Of course, you'll notice that something's not quite right in that picture... there's no spacecraft on top of the rocket yet! So far, only the first and second stages of the vehicle are out on the launch pad. The MER-A spacecraft will be mated with the third stage late this coming week. It won't be until early the week after that that it gets taken out to the pad and hoisted on top of that beautiful blue-green spaceship you see in the picture.

Week Ending May 10, 2003

Well, we had our first big rover operations test this week. It wasn't pretty, but it was a lot of fun. This was the first test in which we actually walked through the procedures that we'll use to do science operations once the rovers are on Mars. The thing that made it really interesting was that we did it in our new MER Mission Support Area at JPL. It's a great facility, but everything was very new to us. It was sort of like the first day in a new school... you could almost hear people saying "Where's my homeroom? What's my locker combination?" It took a little while to figure out where everything was.

Over three days we practiced two martian days, or sols, worth of surface operations. The first sol was an "approach sol" where we drive the rover to a rock that we've selected. The second one was a "spectroscopy sol" where we use the instruments on the arm to look at the rock in detail. The first sol was pretty ragged, frankly... everything was new and we had a lot to learn. The second sol went a lot better, and that one probably would have actually worked out pretty well if we had been doing it for real on Mars. So we're learning.

This kind of rehearsing is most of what we'll be doing over the next eight months or so. And by the time we land next January, we're going to have to be very, very good at doing geology with robots on another planet. It's a somewhat specialized skill, I guess, but it's one we're going to have to learn.

Week Ending May 3, 2003

The rovers are all done, the rockets are on the launch pads, and it's time now for the science team to turn our attention from how to build these things to how to operate them.

For years now, our focus has been on building the Athena payload and getting it to the launch pad. But now, with all that behind us, we need to start earning our martian drivers licenses. It's a complicated process. These are very complex machines, and operating them will take a team of more than a hundred scientists working around the clock for months, starting next January.

This coming week, we'll take one of our first steps toward learning how to do it. It's called a "thread test". Think of it as being like the first walk-through by the cast members in a play. We don't know all our lines yet. We don't know where the props are. And we sure aren't ready to perform in front of an audience. But over the next week we're going to try walking slowly through all the things that we'll have to do over the course of a couple of martian days once our rovers are on the surface.

All of this is going to happen in the brand-new MER Project Mission Support Area at JPL. The paint's barely dry yet! They were still moving furniture in late last week. So it's not just the scientists that aren't ready yet, it's the facilities too. We'll start working the bugs out this week.

April 2003

Week Ending April 26, 2003

It's pretty much impossible to have a week of nothing but smooth sailing on a project as complicated as this one, but the past week was about as close as we come. The science payload on both rovers is all done. The fix of the cable problem that made us delay our first launch a couple of weeks ago is done too. And it went so well that the launch date for MER-A has moved forward by a day, from June 6th to June 5th.

The second rover is on its lander now. The first rover is even farther along, folded up inside its lander and about to be tucked up inside its protective aeroshell... where it will stay until it falls out of a pink sky over Gusev Crater next January.

And coolest of all, our first rocket is coming together now. The first stage of the MER-A launcher was put up on launch pad 17-A at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday, and the second stage will follow shortly. So there's most of a real Mars rocket down in Florida now, almost ready to have our first spacecraft to put on it.

Week Ending April 19, 2003

It's been a pretty crazy week. We're getting very close to launch now, and the focus is starting to shift from our spacecraft to our rockets.

Of course, the spacecraft story isn't over yet. You saw in a news flash here last week that the spacecraft team down in Florida found a wiring problem that required taking both rovers apart and fixing an electronics board inside them. That work is done now, and it went very smoothly. But it set us back a little, and the MER-A launch is now scheduled for June 6th, instead of the original date of May 30th. It's a headache we could have done without.

The rocket story isn't entirely simple either. For MER-A, it's pretty straightforward. MER-A launches from pad 17-A, which is clear now and ready to have our first rocket put on it. For MER-B, though, which is due to launch on June 25th, it's more complicated.

Right now, pad 17-B, which is where MER-B will launch from, has somebody else's rocket on it. It's the launch vehicle for a mission called the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, or SIRTF. SIRTF is a very cool mission... a giant telescope to scan the universe at infrared wavelengths, just like the Hubble Space Telescope has done at visible wavelengths. Thing is, there's a problem with one of the nine solid rocket motors on the SIRTF launch vehicle. It's a minor problem, but NASA is playing it safe, and they've decided not to launch SIRTF until that motor can be replaced. Replacing a motor isn't hard, but it takes time, and time is something the SIRTF team doesn't have... because of us.

A mission like SIRTF can launch at just about any time, as long as the rocket and the spacecraft are ready. But a Mars mission like MER-B has to go in a specific "launch window": a brief period of time when Earth and Mars are aligned properly to get from one to the other. Our launch window is coming up soon, and that doesn't give the SIRTF guys enough time to fix their problem and get off the ground before we need to move onto pad 17-B. We're the ones with the tight schedule, but it's SIRTF that has to take the hit, getting bumped to late summer to make room for us. We feel bad about it... SIRTF has been waiting for their ride into space even longer than we have. But Mars won't wait. So SIRTF goes back to the hangar for awhile, and we're up next.

Week Ending April 12, 2003

What a week! We passed two of the biggest milestones in the history of our project... not just in the same week, but on the same day.

The first milestone is that the Athena payload is now done. We have been working on this thing since 1995, and on Thursday of this past week the last piece was put in place. Both masts are stowed, both arms are stowed, and all the testing is done. The next time any of our hardware gets deployed, it'll be on Mars.

The other milestone is that NASA has selected our landing sites. Not only that, they're the two sites that practically everybody in the Mars science business has been hoping we'd get: Meridiani Planum and Gusev Crater. Meridiani is a place where there's a large concentration of a mineral called coarse crystalline hematite... stuff that on Earth usually forms in the presence of liquid water. And Gusev is a large impact crater with an big dried-up riverbed flowing into it. Long ago there was a lake in Gusev Crater, and the crater must still be full of sediments. They're both great sites... in fact, they're the two best sites you could possibly find for a mission like this. We're thrilled with them.

So now it's a race to the finish, trying to get both spacecraft to their launch pads on time. We have less than seven weeks to go before our first launch.

Week Ending April 5, 2003

It took awhile, but we finally did it. We finally got a chance to take a picture that shows what our Pancam cameras are really capable of. We've been incredibly busy with pre-launch testing, and there hasn't been much time to just play around with the hardware and show what it can do. But this past week, during an overnight "graveyard shift", Justin Maki pretty much had the MER-1 rover all to himself. He put the opportunity to good use, taking the first really big panorama that we've gotten with Pancam. We're calling it the Midnight Pan, because that's when Justin took it.

Here it is. It's a full 360 panorama around the room at Cape Canaveral where the rovers are being readied for flight. You can see the solar arrays of the MER-1 rover itself at the lower left and lower right corners of the image, and a whole lot of other hardware all over the room.

This is just a low resolution version of the image, though... we had to shrink it down by a factor of eight in both directions to make it small enough to download. In order show what full resolution looks like, we've drawn five red boxes on the image. Click on any one of them, and the full-resolution version of the image will pop up. The whole image is that good.

There still are some things about this picture that aren't like our Mars images will be. We did just a quick-and-dirty job of putting the individual frames together, so you can see "seams" in the image, particularly for things close to the camera. We'll take care of that in the martian images. There are some weird glints in this image off of really shiny metallic surfaces; we don't expect to see stuff like that on Mars. And of course on Mars we'll take a lot of our images in color rather than black and white. Still, this gives you a feel for the kind of look at Mars that Pancam will give us.

Less than eight weeks until our first launch...

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