Friday July 11, 2008 – Pasadena, California
On Friday July 11 the Glenn, Ames, and Marshall Academies had a tour of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Unlike the day before at Dryden, the weather was very pleasant. We started the tour at JPL’s visitor center where we met with our tour guide Linda L. Rogers. After a very short introduction we all walked to a little museum to see some of the important works that JPL has done in the past and the projects that they are working on now. There were mockups of the rovers sent to Mars (MER) and other interesting devices. After watching a short documentary about landing on Mars, everyone left to go to building 180 where they had a full-scale model of the Phoenix Mars Lander. This model was particularly interesting to the Ames Academy since it is related to their team project. Afterwards, we went to building 230 where the mission operations center and dark room is located for all the missions. The tracking of all the missions is done through a system called the Deep Space Network (DSN). DSN utilizes three different telescopes around the globe each located 120 degrees of longitude from one another. These telescopes are located in 1-Madrid, Spain, 2-Goldstone, CA – USA, and 3-Australia. The reason behind having three different telescopes is to be able to receive signals from ongoing space missions at every hour of the day. After a short documentary, Linda introduced us to our speaker Dr. Randii R. Wessen. Dr. Wessen talked to us about the current projects at JPL and the responsibilities of the dark room. After exchanging a few questions and answers we all, including Dr. Wessen walked to building 167 for a more detailed presentation. Dr. Wessen, again the presenter had a very interesting and relaxed way of presenting the material; a mixture of very cool scientific facts with his sense of humor helped everyone to follow his talk thoroughly. “The higher the tech, the larger the wreck,” said Dr. Wessen at the beginning of the talk, when he was trying to get the projector to work. He started his talk by asking everyone why plants are green; and then explained that there are more reasons, such as the environment that the plant is growing in, than just the biological ones. The point of this was to show how scientists figure out what the environment would look like on extra solar Earth-like planets. Then, Dr. Wessen started to talk about the history of JPL and the kind of projects that JPL takes on. Some of these projects include: atmospheric science, exploration of Mars etc. Some of the very important missions sent to Mars in the recent past include: Spirit, Opportunity, and Phoenix.
JPL is currently getting ready to send the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover to Mars in near future; another project that is in progress is the Juno Mission to Jupiter. On the next part of the presentation, Dr. Wessen talked about the universe in general: the question of where did we come from and where we are going. He talked about the projects such as Spitzer and Kepler which will be launched in February of 2009 to search for planets outside the solar system. Dr. Wessen finished his presentation with a quote by Tsiolkovsky: “The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”
After the presentation, everyone left to get lunch and returned back to the same room to listen to a few brief presentations by some of the Academy alumni who work at JPL. Their talk was very interesting and the positions they hold at JPL are very impressive. Pretty much all of them are doing frontier research and high priority projects.
After the talk, we went to see the Athlete Rover which is a rover currently being designed to go to the moon. This six-legged rover has a circular shape and its primary purpose is to carry the habitats around the moon. Athlete can also be used for field work; there are several robotic arms that can be placed on Athlete.
After seeing the Athlete, the last part of the JPL tour was to see some of the MSL flight hardware which is currently being manufactured in a JPL clean room. MSL is scheduled to launch in near future and will be the most advanced rover ever built.
The tour at JPL was very interesting and after talking to each other, we all agreed that JPL’s working atmosphere is very different than most NASA centers. JPL has a very college-like environment and there are a lot more young people working at JPL than the other centers; this was actually confirmed after we heard from Linda that JPL is hiring 170 new employees this year alone.