Week Ending September 21, 2002
It's said that one picture is worth a thousand words. Here's one that's
worth that and more. Click here to
see a picture that we recently took with the Pancam
camera on the MER-2 rover. It's a pretty simple
picture, just looking across the room at the
cruise stage for the MER-1 spacecraft. But it's the first image
that we've taken that really gives a sense of how good our pictures
of Mars will be. This is just a single Pancam image, but consider
this: A full Pancam panorama of Mars will be four of these images
high, and twenty-four of these images around! We're not going to
see anything that looks like this cruise stage when we get there,
but we're going to get quite a spectacular view of the surface of
Week Ending September 21, 2002
We had a million things happen this week, but it all pales
in comparison to the news from the parachute test.
Landing on Mars is hard, and one of the toughest parts of this
job has been figuring out how to get our rovers down safely. The
airbags that we use to cushion our impact on the surface gave us
fits for quite a while, and it was only several months ago that
we finally found an airbag design that we're confident will work.
The parachute problem has been even worse. We did a set of chute tests
back in May and June, and they did not go well. The chutes would deploy
just fine, but as soon as they completely filled with air the pressure
on them was too much. It gives you a pretty sick feeling to watch the
parachute that you hoped was going to land you safely on Mars rip to
Over the past several months, Adam Steltzner, Wayne Lee, and the rest
of our EDL team have been working on
the chute problem. The moment of truth for the newest chute design came
this past Thursday, at NASA's Ames Research Center. Ames has an enormous
wind tunnel. It's big enough to put a small airliner in, and it's easily
big enough to do a full-scale deployment of our parachute. They cranked
the fans up, popped the chute... and it worked! There was no damage at
all. Just a big, solid, beautiful bowl of a parachute.
We don't have to start building our flight chutes until November,
so we're going to spend another several weeks doing more testing,
to make sure that whatever we fly is as good ast it can be. But
this problem, which frankly had some of us pretty worried, now
finally seems to be under control. This week we took a crucial step
forward on the road to Mars.
Week Ending September 14, 2002
One of the things about our mission is that we're "hardware rich";
we have a lot of stuff going to Mars. It's a blessing, but it can
also be a curse.
This week, we mounted our first two completed
Pancams to the camera bar that goes at the top of the
rover's mast. These are two out of the total of four Pancams that
we have built, and out of the eighteen cameras in all that will go
on both rovers. That's a lot of cameras.
Here's a nice
the two Pancams, along with two Navigation Cameras, as they were
mounted on the camera bar. We spent about eight hours getting
these suckers properly mounted, precisely aligned, and ready to
go. Took a good look at our handiwork, congratulated ourselves
on a job well done... and then noticed we had 'em reversed:
right camera on the left, and left camera on the right. Ouch.
The Pancams look almost identical from the outside, but they're
not. Each has a wheel containing eight color filters, and the
filter sets are very different in the two cameras.
So why not just leave them where they were? Well, for one thing,
we've got an awful lot of software already written that expects
one set of filters to be on the left and the other to be on
the right. And it would have taken a lot more time to rewrite
and re-test all that software than whatever it was going to
take to switch the cameras. So off they came. We've got it
right now, and you can bet we're going to get it right the
first time when we do the next camera bar!
Week Ending September 7, 2002
This has been another one of those weeks where there's so much
happening that it's hard to decide what to write about. It's
likely to be like that from here to the launch pads.
We officially finished our first
Microscopic Imager this week. It's built, tested, and
delivered. Only five more science cameras to go!
This newly-delivered Microscopic Imager now joins our two
APX Spectrometers, our two
Mini-TESes, and the first
of our two Rock Abrasion Tools as
pieces of hardware that are ready to go to Mars. The second
RAT should be ready to go in another week or two, and the
other five cameras aren't far behind.
It won't be long before some of the instruments are in place,
either. The first of our two
arms has now completed its
testing and is ready to take on some instruments. Within another
week or so, we may have a whole bunch of them mounted onto an
arm for the first time.
And there's so much more going on, too. The first Mini-TES
is mounted to its rover deck. The first Pancam Mast Assembly
(the big mast that supports both Mini-TES and
Pancam is done and is about to be mounted to
the same deck. And the first
rover has been mounted
to its lander and is ready for testing. We're cookin'!
Week Ending August 31, 2002
It's alive! Our first rover arm has been delivered, and it's working
Each MER rover will carry a robotic arm that we'll use to
position four of our scientific instruments: the Microscopic
Imager, the APXS, the Moessbauer Spectrometer, and the RAT.
The arm is the same size as a human arm, and like a human
arm has a shoulder, an elbow, and a wrist.
Our first flight arm -- one of the ones that's going to
Mars -- recently arrived at JPL, and we've been putting
it through its paces. We haven't put any of the instruments
on it yet, though that'll happen soon. What we've done
this past week has been to mount the arm on a rack,
hook it up to the rover's electronics, and start seeing how
well it moves. The real question on our minds has been how
well the arm will be able to position the instruments, and
the preliminary answer seems to be very well indeed. We
still have to actually mount it on the rover body and run
it at real martian temperatures, but all the indications
so far are that it will be able to put the instruments
where we want them every bit as accurately as we had hoped,
or maybe even better.
And on top of that, it's really something to see as the
arm moves all its joints and reaches out toward some
imaginary martian rock. It'll be doing the real thing soon
Week Ending August 24, 2002
Well, if the last couple of weeks weren't enough to teach us how to
do science with a rover on Mars, there isn't much hope for us.
We've just finished a ten-day test using the
rover to simulate twenty martian days of MER
operations. The FIDO guys took their baby out to a site somewhere
out in the American Southwest, and we drove it from JPL just like
we'll drive the real MER rovers when they're on Mars. The "landing site"
was fantastic, with no vegetation, great rocks, and many geologic
puzzles for us to solve. Very Mars-like!
In our twenty "sols" of operations, we drove the rover more than 200
meters, made a bunch of detailed measurements of the chemistry of
the rocks, and took
a lot of spectacular pictures. Most importantly, the whole team
learned an enormous amount about how to do this kind of thing on Mars. We
have some great field geologists on our team, but they're used to
doing geology in their own boots, with their own eyes and hands.
FIDO has helped them to re-learn their trade, teaching them how to
do field geology through the eyes of a robot.
We made some mistakes, of course, which in a way was the best news
of all. We're going to have to do this for real in about a year
and a half, so it's good to make mistakes we can learn from now!
Week Ending August 10, 2002
It's been almost impossible to even write a news update this week, since
we've been so busy. We're in the middle of a test with the
rover. FIDO is a rover similar to the ones that
we'll be sending to Mars, and it's one that we can send out into real
field settings to do real geology. Right now it's somewhere in the
American Southwest (I don't know where), and we're driving it every day
as if it were on Mars. The reason I don't know where it is is that this
is a "blind" test. When we run the real rovers on Mars we're not going
to know very much at all about where
they really are, so making the test blind like this -- not telling the
science team where the rover is -- is the only realistic way to do the
We're three days into a 10-day test as I write this, and it's going
wonderfully so far. The geology at the "landing site" is fantastic, the
rover is working well, and the team is working well together. Watch this
website for updates... as soon as we have some images from the test that
we can post, we'll put 'em here.
Week Ending August 3, 2002
We just completed a test that lasted for an entire month. That may be
your definition of a nightmare, but it's our way of learning how to avoid
trouble when we're on the surface Mars. They are called "thread tests,"
and there will be several of them over the next few months. During the
most recent exercise, we practiced the "uplink" procedure. That's when
we send information from Earth to Mars to command the rovers. We used
images of the Martian landscape taken from the Pathfinder mission to
formulate our uplink plan. If this were the real thing, we'd be working
with images sent to us from the rovers. We studied surface features,
selected rock targets, and created a list of commands. We practiced
using all the procedures, processes and software that we will use for an
uplink during the actual mission. As with any test, there were glitches
along the way. But they helped us identify what needs to be corrected
before we land on Mars.
Week Ending July 27, 2002
Shake a science camera and you might kick up some dust. That's what happened to the
Microscopic Imager after a
vibration test this
week. When a delicate science instrument undergoes such a test, more tests are conducted
"post-vibe" to make sure it is still functioning properly. One of these functional tests
showed that small dust particles somewhere in the optics of the MI had moved slightly during
vibration. This was not unexpected and we were able to confirm that we still have a healthy
MI producing excellent images. But we want to take care of the dust problem and the good
news is that it can be easily corrected.
Week Ending July 20, 2002
As we get closer and closer to flight, our attention is gradually
shifting away from the individual instruments, and more toward
the business of putting the rovers together. We're almost "done"
now with many of the instruments on an individual basis. The flight
Mini-TES and Moessbauer instruments really are done. The flight APXS
instruments are half-done, and the parts that aren't done yet are
coming together quickly in Germany. The RATs should be done in
a few weeks, and we now have the first flight Pancams and
Microscopic Imagers in our hands and taking pictures. There's
still plenty more work ahead, of course, but we really are getting
to the point where getting ready to put things into the rovers
is the main focus.
And so we're very interested in how the rovers are doing!
Fortunately, they seem to be doing pretty well. This past week,
the Dynamic Test Model rover
did its very first "mobility test". In other words, our baby
took its first steps! It didn't go far, and the test wasn't
without a glitch or two. But we have a real test rover now that
can move, and that's a huge accomplishment.
Week Ending July 6, 2002
We had another big week camera-wise! Last week it was the
Engineering Model of the Miscroscopic Imager. This week, it
was the first flight Pancams.
It takes awhile to get these things ready,
that's for sure. But Dave Thiessen and the rest of the camera
crew at JPL put in some very long hours last week, and we
now have the first real flight Pancams -- ones that are
going to Mars -- in our hands. They're beautiful! It'll be a
little while before they're taking pictures of anything
interesting, but as soon as we have something to show we'll
post them here on this site.
And there have been big rover developments lately too. For a
look at some recent progress, here's a picture of the Dynamic Test Model rover.
This one isn't going to Mars -- it's a test model that we'll
use to make sure that the ones that really are going can
withstand all the rigors of flight. But it looks very much like
what part of each flight rover will look like when it's folded
up and stowed inside it's lander.