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News Update Archive

December 1999

Week Ending December 18, 1999

This week was devoted to odds and ends as we get ready to wrap up for the holiday break. There's been plenty of progress on all the APEX instruments: The motors and gearboxes for Pancam and Mini-TES are now all done, we've just finished some new "baffles" to keep light from scattering around too much inside the Pancam cameras, and the Marie Curie rover team is starting to build the covers that'll protect theAPXS instrument from dust. It's good progress, and all we really can do at this point is just keep going... and see what comes out of NASA's review of the Mars Polar Lander failure.

Week Ending December 11, 1999

It has been a very, very bad week. All signs now suggest that the Mars Polar Lander has failed. This is terrible news for the Mars program, since MPL was going to be a great mission. It also looks like bad news for APEX. The Mars '01 lander has nearly the same design as MPL. And at this point, we know that the MPL design failed, but we don't know why. In the space business, when a vehicle has a problem you don't understand, you ground it until you figure out what went wrong and you fix it. So for now, at least, the '01 lander is grounded, and APEX is grounded with it. Watch this web site for news on the changes in the Mars program as they happen.

Week Ending December 4, 1999

There's been plenty of APEX and Athena progress this week, but the real news is about the Mars Polar Lander. As of this writing, our MPL friends still haven't heard from their spacecraft. It's a complicated machine, and there's still a good chance that it's up there, safe and sound, and waiting to phone home. All we can do now is wait and hope, and wish our friends the best of luck. Check the MPL web site for the latest developments.
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November 1999

Week Ending November 26, 1999

Pancam is fixed. What a relief! Everything now works just the way it's supposed to, all the way down to the coldest temperatures we'll see on Mars. On Monday of this week we'll put the cameras back in the test chamber, fire them up, and start a week-long effort to complete all the tests we need to perform before flight.

The other big news this week is that half of the Mössbauer spectrometer has been delivered to JPL. Bodo Bernhardt brought the electronics board over from Germany at mid-week. This is the part that sits inside the lander; the sensor head, which is the part that's out on the Robotic Arm, should arrive late next month.

The week ahead is a very big one, with the landing of Mars Polar Lander on Friday. The Mars '01 lander is a lot like this one, so we're going to be watching closely... holding our breath and

Week Ending November 19, 1999

Sorry about missing last week's update, but things have been crazy. The big news is that we've found and fixed the problems with Pancam. This wasn't easy! It turns out that there were two separate problems. One was pretty simple to fix. The way our software was written, we'd try to take a picture very quickly after the camera was turned on. The electronics didn't like this, and it was simple to put in a little delay that fixed that problem. The other problem, though, was much tougher to track down, and it took us more than a week to find it. The Pancam electronics team at JPL, with Enrique Villegas leading the way, nailed it after a lot of work, and we're now back in business. Calibration starts again soon... but first we're going to let the team rest up over the Thanksgiving weekend!

Week Ending November 5, 1999

We had a tough week. After getting all the Pancam problems we knew about straightened out, we put the cameras back in the test chamber. Problem is, as soon as we cooled them down to martian temperatures (it was the first time we'd done this with the flight cameras), they both acted up, and in fact one of them stopped taking pictures altogether. When they were warmed back up the bad one started working again, so we're hoping it isn't too serious. The whole thing reminded us of the problems we had with Mini-TES when we first took it to low temperatures back in August. We solved that one, and we'll solve this one too... it's all part of the game. In fact, within the last 24 hours, we may have found the problem. And if we're right, it could be just a simple software fix to get everything working again. We'll see...
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October 1999

Week Ending October 29, 1999

No big news this week...just lots of little odds and ends. Mini-TES and APXS are tucked away in storage at JPL, waiting for the other instruments to show up. Mössbauer is coming together in Germany, with the latest arrival being the special microcomputer chip the instrument needs to survive in the radiation environment of space. And Pancam is in pieces at JPL, getting fixed up for the next big round of calibration, which should start in two weeks. The biggest excitement of the week was getting our first look at the Mars 2001 lander. There's a long way to go, but it's great to finally be seeing the real flight hardware!

Week Ending October 22, 1999

The flight Mössbauer Spectrometer is coming together now. The electronics boards are all assembled and tested. They work fine, although we'll have to replace one part once it gets to JPL with a similar part that can survive all the radiation that we'll encounter in space. The other part of the instrument, the sensor head, is lagging behind a little bit, but should be ready near the end of November.

The other news this week was that we just completed our second operations test with the FIDO rover in the Mars yard. We set this one up as a truly "blind" test, with the operations team in a windowless room in the JPL robotics lab, far from the Mars yard and interacting with the rover just as we'll have to do it on Mars. Each time we do this we learn more and more, and this was probably our most successful test to date.

Week Ending October 15, 1999

We had a real up-and-down week. The up part was that the APXS is now integrated into the Marie Curie rover! This whole operation took about a week, and went better than we could have imagined. The down part is that we ran into a bunch of annoying little problems on Pancam, including a motor that has to be replaced, a couple of devices called photodiodes that we wired in backwards by mistake, and the discovery that we have to redesign the sunshades a little bit. None of these are big deals, but they all worked to slow down what otherwise would have been one of our best weeks ever.

Week Ending October 8, 1999

It looks like we're closing in on a landing site for APEX. There was a big workshop down in Houston this week, and now we seem to be down to just two candidate regions. One is a place on the rim of the Isidis Basin. This one is in some of Mars' oldest terrain, and is in an area with lots of small valleys and gullies that indicate that water once flowed there. It also has some spectacular topography, which could make for a very scenic landing. The other is a smooth, flat plain that has been found from orbit to have a lot of the mineral hematite present. Hematite normally forms in the presence of liquid water, so this is another place that may have once been warm and wet, and that is very different from almost everything else on the planet. There's still plenty of time to study these two places before the Project has to decide, but it's great to have two sites this exciting that we might go to.

Week Ending October 1, 1999

We hit a little snag with Pancam this week. The flight electronics for one of the cameras were put together and worked beautifully. When we put the second set together, however, there was some ugly noise in the images -- stripes across the pictures like static in a bad TV picture. A little work by Enrique Villegas, our Pancam electronics whiz, showed that this was caused by the fact that the detector for that camera had been damaged -- probably by a little accidental jolt of static electricity somewhere along the line. We're still not sure how it happened, but this is the reason you always make sure you have spares of critical components! We have a good number of flight-quality detectors, so we've popped one of them onto a new Pancam electronics board, and we're back in business.
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