Tag Archives: Spirit

A Glimpse of our Space Future

Sputnik 1, the little Russian satellite that launched the space race in 1957

The American Museum of Natural History‘s new exhibit, Beyond Planet Earth, which opened last Saturday through August 12, 2012, provides a window through the past and an optimistic glimpse at the future of space exploration. As I moved through the historical portion at a press preview last Tuesday, Russian spacecraft pinged, and news reports captured the excitement and enthusiasm of historical moments, press conferences that opened up the world beyond our atmosphere.

I grew up in Florida in the Space Shuttle era, but I never saw a shuttle launch. My family tried to go once, and we thought we’d miss it because of traffic, only to arrive just in time to have the launch scrubbed seconds before scheduled liftoff. Years earlier I’d watched the TV enraptured in my elementary school library as the first Space Shuttle launched. I remember slipping on ice between two of my middle school classes  on a frigid morning in January 1986 — within a couple of hours word spread through the hallways of the Challenger explosion. So my personal piece of space nostalgia came when I walked by the case with the frangible nuts– the piece of the space shuttle that released the engine and rocket boosters and allowed the spacecraft to be reusable.

In many ways, the Space Shuttle was my window on exploration, on space, on science. The  future of understanding worlds beyond Earth seems far less focused, and though exciting and innovative, far less certain.

Sarah with rover
Sarah with the AMNH's Mars Exploration Rover

I paused at the Mars Exploration Rover long enough for a photo. Spirit and Opportunity launched the same year that I started my science writing career, and that mission marks a very personal milestone: a new career, a new adventure, a personal exploration.

But the real meat in this exhibit comes through the journey into the future, a world of Kevlar-sided Moon-homes the size of camping trailers, liquid mirror telescopes, the technology to provide enough water to drink on the Moon or beyond.

The Virgin Galactic Spaceplane: the future for astronauts and space tourists?

I had never thought about mining asteroids, but space mining for rare elements for cell phones and electronics seems plausible, maybe. After our recent near-Earth asteroid experience within the last two weeks, one interactive game that allowed me to use various strategies, bombs and mirrors to divert such disasters.

My asteroid diversions probably line up with Dennis Overbye’s inner 6-year-old boy delight at bombing Mars (see his New York Times review). The exhibit includes a touch table that allows you to terraform Mars, by building factories, setting off bombs. It took me a while to get to a point where such effects might make Mars warm enough to be comfortably habitable. And I couldn’t help but wonder, is this a good idea?

I spent the most time looking at the new Curiosity rover that’s heading to Mars next weekend and learning about the prototype for a Mars spacesuit. Dava Newman of MIT talked about the suit that uses mechanical pressure against the skin instead of a pressurized dough-boy look. The resulting suit works like high-tech athletic gear, sleek and far more streamlined for moving and climbing.

BioSuit by MIT Aeronautics

At the press conference before the  preview last Tuesday, astronaut Mike Massimino talked about his early interest in space exploration that came out of his childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History: “There were no astronauts living on my block in Long Island.” This exhibit is a lovely tribute to explorations past and a look at the best possible future. I hope that future generations have the same chance to explore worlds beyond Earth.

Photo credits:

Sputnik: © AMNH\R. Mickens

Sarah and Rover: Carol Milano

Spaceplane and BioSuit: © AMNH\D. Finnin


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.


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.


More Mars Rovers

The rovers are still my favorite NASA mission, for reasons I’ve already written about. Even if the rovers quit tomorrow, the rover science team of Steve Squyres of Cornell and company would still have decades of data to comb through and analyze. Last Friday, they published more of the Opportunity data in the journal Science (requires subscription) that documents the role that salty, acidic water and wind have played in sculpting the magnificent rock formations in the craters of Meridiani Planum.

Cape St Vincent explored by Opportunity in Victoria Crater, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Cape St Vincent explored by Opportunity in Victoria Crater, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Spirit stuck in the sand, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Spirit stuck in the sand, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

But I still have my soft spot for Spirit, even though that robot is stuck in the sand with another gimpy wheel. The pictures from rover missions are amazing, the science is spectacular, but I’m still floored by the engineering and troubleshooting involved in maneuvering a robot in a harsh environment on a planet 100 million miles away. The mission engineers have managed these problems remotely for more than 5 years– I know my car would need a hand-on tune-up long before that.

That’s not to say that there isn’t hands-on testing involved, and apparently, those steps are underway on the ground at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out of the sand.

Work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out for Spirit, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out for Spirit, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

I’m not a gambling woman, but my (Monopoly) money is on the rover and the engineers.

Check out these news reports for more details:

The New York Times article from May 25

And an article by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s veteran science reporter, David Perlman


Roving Mars for 5 years and counting

Dusty Solar Panels on Spirit/Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

The Mars rovers may not make the news as much as they once did, but Spirit and Opportunity are still the little Mars missions that could. Spirit bounced its way through a successful landing on Mars 5 years ago, on January 3, 2004.

The rovers feel like old dear work colleagues that I revisit from time to time. Early in my journalism career, I interviewed Steve Squyres of Cornell about the rovers’ longevity in August 2004, just 8 months after they landed. He’s still talking about being exhausted, but he still sounds just as excited now as he did then.

Squyres is dynamic, engaging and decidedly unpretentious. The first time I interviewed him, he munched on a sandwich while he talked to me by phone. Later, when I interviewed him for an Astronomy feature about Spirit, he described that rover’s “personality quirks” and the real risks that the rover team took in deciding to drive Spirit kilometers– eventually towing a lame wheel, sometimes backwards– toward the Columbia Hills. In 2005 and 2006, I pored over Spirit’s photos and traverse maps for a Mars exhibit (that sadly didn’t make it into production) , marking rocks and distances in photographs. Among the Himalayan scale of Mars rover data, I’ve studied a few boulders around the edges.

The new JPL video makes the connection between the rovers and their prescient names: Spirit, the scrappy robot that had to work for everything and Opportunity, who capitalized on landing in the right place.

I feel a certain sisterhood with Spirit, holding on through Martian winters, weathering dust storms, but discovering salty soil and examining bedrock. As she was beginning her climb in the Columbia Hills, I made my own trek from Indiana to New York City, from chemistry to journalism. It’s been a rewarding trip, but it hasn’t been easy. I’ve drug my own gimpy wheel at times, sometimes feeling like I was looking over my own shoulder. But nearly 5 years on my own journey, I have a Squyres-esque smile on my face, and I’m saluting an inspiring road warrior, on a planet 100 million miles or so away.