Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Robotic Exploration Outline:NASA JPL Engineer Briefs the Public

On Friday 2 June 2017,a senior engineer from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,California,briefed the Metropolitan Washington area public on robotic exploration missions at the C.Burr Artz Library in Frederick,Maryland.Dr.Adam Steltzner,team leader and chief engineer of Mars Rover Curiosity,began by recounting his own life to the standing room crowd in Maryland.A native of Sausalito,California in the San Francisco Bay Area,Dr.Steltzner admitted he was a terrible student in high school;indeed,he was barely able to graduate.He dreamed of being a rock star and played in a band.One night-a night that changed his life forever-he spotted the constellation Orion in the night sky and got so intrigued by its motion through the heavens that he took a class in astronomy.Unfortunately,there weren't enough students for the astronomy class,so it was canceled and he had to settle for a physics class,instead.From then on,though,exploring the universe became his true passion and he pursued a PhD in engineering physics.*
For 10 years,Dr.Steltzner led a team of JPL engineers of the revolutionary sky crane landing system that successfully placed the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars in 2012.The atmosphere of Mars is so thin,he explained,they had to devise a new way to safely land Curiosity,which is the size of a car,the biggest rover ever sent into space,and came up with the sky crane system.He is now also chief engineer of the Mars Rover 2020 mission,the next iteration of the robotic exploration of Mars that began with the Viking spacecraft in 1976.Viking was followed by Pathfinder in 1997;the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2004;Phoenix in 2008;and finally Curiosity in 2012.Of all these rovers,Opportunity,which is solar-powered,and Curiosity,which is nuclear-powered,are still doing great scientific work.*
The unique thing about JPL,Dr.Steltzner pointed out,is its culture.This culture is different in that it separates ideas from the people who hold them,thus freeing up the ideas to compete,so only the sharpest ones survive.His JPL experiences led him to author the book "The Right Kind of Crazy:A True Story of Teamwork,Leadership and High Stakes Innovation."*
Curiosity was gently positioned in the Gale crater,in the shadow of its central feature,the 15,000 foot Mt.Sharp.Over 3,000 JPL people from 37 states and seven nations worked to get it there.When it got to Yellowknife Bay,Curiosity pulled up powder,and data from the powder showed that conditions for supporting life were rich on Mars some three billion years ago,at about the time when life was beginning on Earth.This raises the question,did life on Earth somehow originate from life on Mars?
Curiosity has begun climbing up Mt.Sharp.*
Mars Rover 2020 will take up Mars material and seal it in three special,highly secure containers samples which will be retrieved and returned to Earth by another mission.These containers will be unbreakable because they are containers within containers;they are redundant.The containers will both shield the samples from contamination,on the one hand;and protect the Earth from contamination when they are returned,on the other hand.
Mars Rover 2020 will also be landed by the sky crane system.In this system,the landing stage has a crane mechanism on it that places rovers on the surface while it hovers,then propels itself away from the rover landing site so it will not damage the rover when it lands itself.*
After Mars 2020,NASA is looking ahead to a robotic mission to explore Europa in the 2025-27 time frame,Europa Clipper,but a lander is much less developed at this point-and even uncertain.Europa is the icy moon of Jupiter which is covered by oceans.Europa is the number one bet by astrobiologists for a place other than Earth to find extant life in our solar system,because of its oceans.Mars is an unlikely place to find extant life,because it receives a lot of radiation,which would tend to kill any microbes-and is also very dangerous for astronauts.Mars is smaller than Earth,so,unlike the molten-cored Earth,its core has already cooled off,and hence its magnetic field has nearly vanished.*
Dr.Steltzner noted that he does not agree with industrialist Elon Musk,owner of NASA contractor Space-X,that Mars should be colonised.All the knowledge needed to colonise Mars is also needed here on Earth.If,as seems obvious,we lack the knowledge to successfully live together on Earth,we will lack it on Mars as well.

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