January 04, 2004

Spirit Rover Touch-Down on Mars Bodes Well for NASA & Space Business


NASA scored a big win with its successful touch-down of the Mars "Spirit" Rover and that’s sure to mean a new emphasis for the aerospace business, to say nothing of NASA itself, after a season of tough going. After hitting the "sweet spot" of their dry-lakebed LZ, the first pictures back are really something, and when "Opportunity" lands in coming weeks, the buzz is sure to be complete.

The implications are broad ranging for the U.S. – and international – economy, as well; consider Boeing’s current interests in the International Space Station, as well as talk of new money to be spent sending people to Mars, as well as colonizing the Moon.

And, while the current rover is solar-powered – a distinct disadvantage for operating at night and a factor that will ultimately lead to the demise of the costly rover in short order – future rovers might be powered by a nuclear engine, a component Boeing is hoping to sell NASA in the very near future.

With that, here’s an excerpt from USAToday.com that briefs the story for us:

    NASA said it hopes to release the initial batch of color photos today — the first from the surface of Mars in seven years. NASA began receiving its second batch of black-and-white pictures from its Spirit rover late Sunday.

    Spirit's descent was textbook perfect Saturday night, with elated mission controllers recontacting the craft minutes after it bounced to a landing at 11:51 p.m. ET.

    "We're back," said NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe. "I am very, very proud of this team, and we're on Mars."

    Ten out of 13 earlier Mars landings from the United States and other countries ended in failure, so this was a significant victory for NASA, which has been under a cloud since the explosion of shuttle Columbia almost a year ago.

    "It's an astonishing success. ... Virtually every single thing went right, including landing right-side up so that we could get photos and mosaic panoramas within the first few hours," said William Hartmann of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, author of A Traveler's Guide to Mars.

    Mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory pronounced their craft in good health Sunday.

    Spirit landed facing south on a smooth, cratered plain marked by whirlwinds of dust, in "fantastic" position to roll off its airbag-shrouded landing craft, JPL engineers said. The rover will begin rolling slowly over the crater floor next week, analyzing soils and rocks for the next three months.

    The mission's principal investigator, Steven Squyres of Cornell University, said his team planned to check out almost every instrument aboard the rover before planet analysis begins. "We've got plenty to keep us busy between now and then," he said.

    Scientist Jennifer Trosper said Spirit is encountering 20% less than expected of the solar energy needed to charge its batteries because of high levels of dust. Less energy may eventually force the team to prioritize Spirit's jobs, she said.

    About the size of Connecticut, Gusev Crater, where Spirit landed, is several billion years old and notched by a channel that appears to have been carved by water. Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, which is set for a Jan. 24 landing at a different site, may answer questions about whether watery conditions were sufficient for life.

    "NASA very much needed a success, and this is an extraordinary one," said space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University, a member of the panel that investigated the space shuttle crash. "Sean O'Keefe said NASA is back. And this has been a great moment. But there is still lots ahead for NASA in getting itself back into order," he added.

    Meanwhile, British scientists report no contact with Beagle 2, which was supposed to have landed Christmas Day. The European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, Beagle's mothership, will be in position to start trying to contact the lost lander on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the LA Times puts next steps (and the financials) in a bit clearer perspective:

    Spirit will spend the next nine days checking out its internal systems, charging its batteries, and photographing the site before it finally rolls off its landing platform and begins its geological work.

    Spirit is the most ambitious effort yet to roam the surface of another planet. It is part of a small fleet of spacecraft sent toward Mars in an effort to answer one of the most captivating questions in science: Has there been life on other planets?

    Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, are the most sophisticated of the spacecraft, and hopes are high that they will provide a bounty of information.

    The stakes were even higher because NASA's last two Mars missions, the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, failed in 1999. A third mission planned for 2001 was canceled when outside reviewers concluded the agency was attempting too much with too few resources.

    The two new missions, costing $820 million together, have consumed the energy of hundreds of scientists and engineers for the last four years and destroyed the recent holidays for mission controllers.

    Reporters were camped out in JPL's newsroom waiting for the fateful moment of arrival and hundreds of thousands of people were watching on the Internet.

    Earlier Saturday, the JPL campus exuded more excitement than anxiety as four years of intensive efforts were perched on the knife edge between success and disaster.

    Small knots of employees joked and talked in the bright sunshine of the lab's central campus; even top mission managers seemed upbeat and relaxed.

    That almost preternatural sense of calm was described by JPL Director Charles Elachi as essential to the mission's success.

    "We are nervous," he said. "But when you feel you have done your best, you've done everything possible, then it's important to be calm — because there may be decisions and judgments to make."

    All the years of preparation paid off.

    A planned last-minute course correction proved unnecessary because the craft was already on a "bull's-eye" course for its targeted landing site in Gusev Crater.

    "This is essentially perfect navigation," said JPL's navigation team chief, Louis D'Amario. "We couldn't possibly have hoped to do better than this."

    But the team did have to make some last-minute adjustments in the landing program to take into account a dust storm on the opposite side of Mars.

    Because dust absorbs more sunlight than the planet's surface, Mars' upper atmosphere was about 10% to 15% warmer and thinner than normal, said mission manager Mark Adler.

    The lander's parachute was therefore reprogrammed to open 13 or 14 seconds earlier than originally planned to ensure that the craft didn't crash into the surface, he said.

    JPL's scientists and engineers were confident that they had done everything they could to prepare for Spirit's landing - a harrowing maneuver that Theisinger described as the riskiest part of the mission.

    Mission controllers call the entry "six minutes from hell" because the spacecraft's speed had to be reduced from 12,000 mph to effectively zero. The craft relied on a parachute and retrorockets to slow its descent before bouncing to a halt on its cocoon of air bags.

    The whole process had to be handled autonomously by Spirit's on-board computer. Earthbound controllers could only sit back and watch. And worry.

    "It was six minutes from hell, but in this case we said the right prayers and we got up to heaven," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science.

    Spirit's successful landing gives a boost to the spirits of planetary scientists, who have recently witnessed more failures than successes with Mars missions.

    Last month, Japan conceded that its Nozomi orbiter had failed because of navigational and equipment problems. Its mission was aborted.

    The fate of Britain's Beagle 2 lander, carried to Mars aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, is still in doubt.

    Beagle 2 was scheduled to land in the Isidis Planitia basin late Christmas Eve Pacific time, but controllers have not been able to make contact with the craft and many fear it is lost.

    Mars Express did go into orbit, however, and controllers have been altering its path so that it can attempt to make contact with Beagle. They are scheduled to begin those efforts today.

    NASA's two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were launched last year to take advantage of Mars' closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, a celestial alignment that brought it within 35 million miles of Earth.

    The armada marks the beginning of humanity's strongest effort yet to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars.

Whether there’s life on Mars – or in Boeing’s stock – or not, at the very least check out the slide show from the New York Times – it’s cool! More is promised in the weeks ahead as NASA’s "search for water" (to say nothing of the search for good PR) intensifies. Hey, at least they came up with a hip project name - and Web site - in "M2K4".

- Arik

Posted by Arik Johnson at January 4, 2004 12:41 PM | TrackBack