Thursday, July 16th, 2009 – Pasadena, CA
On the morning of July 16, the Glenn Academy joined both the Ames and Marshall Academies to tour the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. To begin, they waited to be badged and processed and took the time to meet some of the Academyites. They were then ushered into an auditorium for an overview encompassing the JPL facility and its past and continuing work. The presentation spoke of how JPL was not a regular NASA center, but part of CalTech and were contracted by NASA. It was explained how JPL is a unique center in that they took space robotic exploration projects from the beginning conceptual stages and followed them through construction, operations, and data analysis. It was very interesting to learn the broad range of the missions and work done at the Lab.
After the presentation, the group was split into two and headed to separate areas of the Lab. The Glennterns first went to the Mars Exploration Rovers Operations Center. Here they spoke with a MER mission specialist about the still operational Spirit and Opportunity Rovers. Discussions began with how the rovers worked and motivations of their design. The operations process was explained including how decisions were made on what the rovers should do each day and how the operators enacted those decisions.
The speaker brought up the fact that the rovers operate during Mars day which is longer than Earth’s day by forty minutes. This caused the initial operations teams to operate on this schedule, causing many problems. After some time the commanding process was streamlined and altered so the operations teams could have a normal work day. The group saw many pictures taken by the rovers of the various landscapes during their encounters.
Next, the group proceeded to the JPL museum where they met their guide Randii Wessen. He had worked for JPL for many years and knew a lot about the programs there. Wessen had many opinions on life on other planets and universal theories in general. He began his talk with Explorer 1, America’s first satellite and JPL’s role in its construction. He explained how infrared technologies and other optical mapping methods work. Next, he showed some pictures from the Hubble of budding galaxies billions of light-years away and explained how this let us look into the formation of the Universe. He explained that Hubble technologies let us see more dust and where stars were actually forming.
This led to discussion of the distances involved in our universe and how advanced a society would have to be to make contact with us. He jokingly said that if a society found us, they would probably have to be interested in helping a still-forming society or extinguishing it for its resources. Wessen then spoke of how life in different galaxies may look different and talked of different thought experiments, such as what color leaves might be with a differently sized star for the sun. He concluded his talk with his area of study, market approach to spacecraft subsystem construction and integration. He explained how this worked very well for the Cassini mission but has not been used since.
The Glennterns then headed back into the auditorium for a talk on the ATHLETE power system using regenerative fuel cells. The talk was interesting and showed some background on the fuel cells and how they work. The presentation also included many videos of the ALTHETE in action, doing things such as hill climbs and small drop maneuvers.
After lunch, the Academies were split once again and the Glennterns first went to see the one-third scale model of the ATHLETE in the Mars yard. The Mars yard consisted of many rocks found on Earth similar to those found on Mars and sand to help simulate the surface. It housed many experiments and can be used for some ATHLETE testing.
The lead mechanical engineer talked to the group about the model construction and different testing it had been subjected to. The model stood about six feet tall and utilized six legs with wheels for very interesting maneuverability. It could walk using the legs as well as roll in any direction. The ATHLETE is proposed for transfering the Outpost habitat from the Altair Lander. He also spoke of the new one half scale model construction that was underway.
The second part of the afternoon was spent at the Mars Rover test lab. Here, there was a special set-up because the Spirit rover has been stuck in sand and is no longer moving. This occurred about three months prior to the visit and this lab was trying to reconstruct the exact situation that the rover is in with a model in Mars dust stimulant. Different methods of maneuvering out of the predicament are being proposed and attempted. The rover was stuck because of a non-operational wheel digging into the dust on the side of a slope and may have a rock holding it on its underside.
This concluded a wonderful tour of an outstanding laboratory. Many interesting things are happening at JPL, and the tour was a great way of showing off the laboratory’s capabilities and diversity.