Weekly Space Hangout: April 11, 2018: Emily Lakdawalla’s “The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Performs Its Job”

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
This week we are excited to welcome Emily Lakdawalla, Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist at The Planetary Society, back to the Weekly Space Hangout. On On May 14th, Emily’s new book, The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Performs Its Job, will be released. It in, Emily describes the engineering that went into each instrument and piece of machinery incorporated into Curiosity’s systems. You can learn more about the book and Emily’s planned followup book on her blog here:
http://www.planetary.org/blogs/emily-lakdawalla/2017/0831-book-update.html

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The Solar System’s ‘Yearbook’ is About to Get Filled In

Lined up like familiar faces in your high school yearbook, here are images of the 33 largest objects in the Solar System, ordered in size by mean radius. Engineer Radu Stoicescu put this great graphic together, using the highest resolution images available for each body. Nine of these objects have not yet been visited by a spacecraft. Later this year, we’ll visit three of them and be able to add better images of Ceres, Pluto and Charon. It might be a while until the remaining six get closeups.

“This summer, for the first time since 1989,” Stoicescu noted on reddit, “we will add 3 high resolution pictures to this collection, then, for the rest of our lives, we are not going to see anything larger than 400 km in high definition for the first time. It is sad and exciting at the same time.”

Dawn will enter orbit at Ceres approximately March 6, 2015, four months before New Horizons flies past Pluto and Charon.

But a comprehensive Solar System yearbook might never be completed. Not only will there likely be new dwarf planets discovered in the Kuiper Belt, uUnless things change in the budgetary and planetary missions departments for any of the world’s space agencies, the remaining six unvisited objects in the graphic above will likely remain as “fuzzy dots” for the rest of our lives.

If you like the graphic above, you can see more imagery and space discussions at Stoicescu’s reddit page.

For more Solar System yearbook-like imagery, Emily Lakdawalla has also created some wonderful graphics/montages of our Solar System, like this one:

Every round object in the solar system under 10,000 kilometers in diameter, to scale. Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. Data from NASA / JPL and SSI, processed by Gordan Ugarkovic, Ted Stryk, Bjorn Jonsson, and Emily Lakdawalla.
Every round object in the solar system under 10,000 kilometers in diameter, to scale. Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. Data from NASA / JPL and SSI, processed by Gordan Ugarkovic, Ted Stryk, Bjorn Jonsson, and Emily Lakdawalla.

As Emily wrote in the accompanying blog post, “Just look at all of these worlds, and think about how much of the solar system we have yet to explore. Think about how much we have to learn by orbiting, and maybe even landing on, those planet-sized moons. Think about how Pluto isn’t the end of the planets, it’s the start of a whole new part of the solar system that we’ve never seen before, and how seeing Charon is going to clue us in to what’s happening on a dozen other similar-sized, unvisitably far worlds.”

Nifty Video: Clouds in Motion on Mars

Kick back and watch the clouds go by — on Mars! Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society Blog has put together a very nifty video from Mars Express data, showing clouds in motion over Mars. Emily has just learned a new technique called ‘tweening’ to create smooth animation videos from a series of images that are not at a very high frame rate. She explains more about the technique on her blog post here and has promised a two-part “how to” explainer for those interested in learning how to do this for yourself.

The cloudy area shown on Mars is within Noachis Terra to the west of Hellas basin, around 45 degrees south, 38 east.

Cool Chang’E 2 Videos

Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society blog unearthed some really cool videos taken by the Chinese Chang’E 2 spacecraft at the Moon. The five engineering videos include Chang’E 2’s solar panel deployment, orbit insertion burn, the first and second orbital trim maneuvers, and low lunar orbit. They are all especially unique in that the video not only includes images from the Moon’s surface, but also the spacecraft itself can be seen, providing a perspective that is not often seen. The video above is of Chang’E 2’s second orbit trim maneuver. Check out Emily’s post to see all five, plus she provides great insights into the video clips, as well.

One Moment, Two Worlds

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The New York Times Lens Blog came up with a great idea: They called it “A Moment in Time,” and asked people everywhere to take a picture on May 2, 2010 15:00 UTC and submit it, to share the variety and complexity of life on our world. Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society saw this and thought, “Why limit it to Earth?” she wrote on the Planetary Blog. “What about Mars? What will Opportunity be doing at 15:00 U.T.C. on May 2?” Emily approached Jim Bell, planetary scientist at Cornell University and lead for the rovers’ Pancam team, who was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of having Opportunity take an image to submit to the “Moment in Time” project.

“My immediate reaction when Emily suggested the idea was ‘Cool!'” Bell told Universe Today. “My second reaction was to wonder whether we’d be able to take the photo at the right time, given the low power situation that Opportunity is in right now. Then my third through tenth reactions were ‘Cool!'”

The image has now been posted on the Lens blog, with this caption:

“Two worlds, one sun: while humans’ lives unfolded on Earth, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity paused in its southward trek and captured this photomosaic. Dusty, reddish-brown sand dunes stretch to the horizon in a view taken around 15:00 local Mars time on May 2.”

Getting the image from Mars, though was not just as easy as pulling out a camera and taking a picture like people on Earth can do.

“The process of acquiring the image was perhaps just a bit more challenging than “normal” on the rover project,” said Bell, who asked us to remember–lest we all get jaded–how incredibly complex and amazing it is *whenever* we take images with robots on another planet!), — “because we were aiming for a specific time of day, and to try to get the data downlinked on that same day, very soon after taking the data. However, the rover engineering and science teams were very excited about participating in this global photo event, and that support was critical in helping to make it happen.”

Bell added that the image turned out to be a really lovely shot. The MarsDial (sundial) visible at the bottom of the image on Opportunity is engraved with the words “Two Worlds, One Sun” to mark the unity of Earth and Mars as part of the same solar system.

The timing was “a bit of a fudge” Emily admitted. “Our appointed hour would have been too late for Opportunity in midwinter. Besides, the data began arriving from Mars close to 15:00 U.T.C., so that’s when humans were first able to see the view.”

But the Lens blog folks thought, too, it was a really great idea and decided not to disqualify the picture.

I asked Emily if doing having this image taken at her request was even better than having a request approved for an image from HiRISE, with the “HiWISH” program (public suggestions for the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter). “It was kind of a HiWish with the rovers!” she said with a smile. “Of course the rover image wouldn’t have happened if the whole rover team wasn’t excited about participating. But it’s important to remind people that those rovers, and all the other spacecraft, and all the people who support them, are out there working hard every day to bring back the data.”

Indeed – wonderful idea, Emily, and great execution on the rover team’s part, making the Mars rovers even more endearing to us Martian wannabes here on Earth.

See the image on the Lens Blog, Emily’s description on the Planetary Blog, and the Mars Rover website.