No more driving for Spirit

Artist's rendering of Spirit; Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s the end of an era. The rover team has decided to leave Spirit where she is. Other than getting the solar panels in better position to catch sunlight, the rover will become a stationary science center.

This morning, the NY Times had a story that didn’t sound particularly optimistic. But this afternoon, the rover team made the official announcement.

Spirit might still have interesting science to report. And, oh, yeah, Opportunity is still driving.

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Planning Spirit's escape

Spirit rover's wheels move a little; Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Back to my favorite space topic– the Spirit rover. I’m fascinated by the meticulous science and engineering effort going into an obvious obstacle: a robot stuck in the sand. The only problem? The robot and the sand are millions of miles away.

So far, even though it’s been 8 months, Spirit’s still stuck. But scientists have built animations of how the robot got stuck. They’re working with a model and similar conditions on Earth to figure out how to get Spirit rolling again. [Check out NASA’s video.] At the same time, they note, the nearby soil is rich with minerals that could indicate a watery early Martian history. So in some ways, being stuck is “like your car breaking down at Disneyland.”

But as a science communicator, I’m also glad to highlight the process of science and engineering before we know the outcome. When we tell these problem-solving stories, it’s often in hindsight. New discoveries typically involve years of hard work and months– sometimes years– to finish various steps along the way.

Ultimately, patience and problem-solving often go hand-in-hand.

Keep tabs on Spirit’s progress through NASA’s Free Spirit page.

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The role of great sources

influenza virus particle: CDC Public Health image library, Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith; Content Providers: CDC/ Dr. Erskine. L. Palmer; Dr. M. L. Martin

Though my writing life ranges from writing health stories for teens to writing about research topics and careers issues for scientists, the sources that I speak with for the former type of article generally don’t overlap with those for the latter. Until now.

Last spring, I was working on an article about the common cold, and I asked a group of writer buddies: do you know a virologist who could talk about the common cold? I need someone who can leave out the jargon– someone who’s the best of what we all look for in an interview. The recommendation– Ben tenOever— a researcher who actually works on influenza viruses at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. But he gave me a great interview– explaining viruses, how they work in terms that teens could understand. My favorite analogy that didn’t make it into the story: “If you consider the Empire State Building to be the size average cell in the nose, the virus would be the size of a fist.” The resulting story was published in December– in Weekly Reader’s Current Health 2. [sorry, it’s not available online]

But Ben’s also a young scientist on the rise– studying both how the immune system responds to viral infection and a new bioengineering strategy for developing flu vaccines– more on that in my most recent article for Science Careers. Talking with him, particularly in person, I noticed his enthusiasm, about science in general, viruses, and his own research projects. Science is a tough business, but it’s clear from talking with him how much he loves the hunt for new discoveries– combing through new data and figuring out what it means.

It’s incredibly rare that I find a scientist who is so good at tuning his descriptions and who also effuses energy and enthusiasm with every analogy or anecdote. What fun that I get to tell their stories.

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