Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Curiosity: Meeting Mars Science Laboratory at JPL

On June 6, 2011, I was one among 120 @NASA Twitter followers who were invited to spend a day behind the scenes at a NASA Tweetup at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

This was my first NASA Tweetup and the second held at JPL, which hosted the first one in January 2009. Now, three years later, there are Tweetups hosted at various NASA facilities just about every month, in addition to many space-themed Tweetups organized by Twitter space enthusiasts not affiliated with NASA, a group that has christened itself #spacetweeps.

Immersion in Tweetups and related social events has been a tremendous inspiration for me. It rekindled my life-long passion for space, space exploration and space tourism in a setting that allows me not only to geek out to my heart's content, but to be part of a fast growing community of people who all want to see humans get off our planet and establish a permanent presence beyond low-Earth orbit. Not 100 years from now. Not 50 years from now. But NOW, in our lifetime.

I have yet to meet anyone at a NASA or space Tweetup who does NOT want to go into space. To illustrate just how much we do, an informal poll I took at a gathering of spacetweeps last July revealed that 80% answered Yes when offered this scenario: "You are given the opportunity to live on a Mars Colony in your lifetime. The trip is one-way. Would you go?"

I don't think NASA expected its Tweetup campaign to evolve into the social phenomenon, online and off, that it has become. Still, the credit certainly belongs to NASA and its social media specialists for creating a highly effective public outreach campaign, at a time when the agency's 30-year Space Shuttle Program drew to a close and NASA faced significant changes in its operations, staffing and priorities.

When I arrived at JPL on June 6, 2011, I expected to experience great things and meet people who would become friends. I was not disappointed. NASA Tweetup day at JPL stands out as one of my most memorable days of the year.

The highlight of the day was a tour of the JPL facility where Mars rover Curiosity was in its final stages of assembly, with preparations underway to ship the rover to Kennedy Space Center for its November 2011 launch. When I look at the pictures from that day, I marvel that this machine is now well on its way to the Red Planet. Curiosity will reach Mars orbit in August 2012.

The rover impressively outclasses its predecessors: Curiosity is the size of a car and weighs in at a ton. It is nuclear-powered and its many scientific instruments include a laser that can vaporize Martian rock. In a major design innovation, Curiosity won't have to bounce off the Martian surface encased in giant balloons to land in a most undignified manner. Befitting a robot of its sophistication, it will instead be lowered by a sky crane that uses retro rocket and tethers to guide Curiosity to its destination at Gale Crater while hovering above the Martian surface.

A flawless launch atop an Atlas V rocket on November 26, 2011 saw Curiosity off on an 8-month-trip to Mars:

I expect to see NASA Tweetups and space meetups around the world later this year as we celebrate Curiosity's arrival in Mars orbit and track the rover's descent onto the surface of another world. Nuclear-powered, laser-equipped and all that, Curiosity does have a whimsical side as well. The wheels have a tread pattern that spells out J-P-L in Morse code wherever Curiosity travels on the Red Planet. 

At the Tweetup, we were invited to sign a guest list, an image of which is on its way to Mars with Curiosity, along with a million others. I bet I'm not the only one who signed the list who has wondered about future colonists who will encounter Curiosity on the Martian surface and scan that list for the name of a relative or friend.

Mars Rovers Family Portrait:

Curiosity is on the right, Spirit/Opportunity is on the left, and the smallest one is a model of Sojourner, which launched to the Red Planet in 1997. Spirit and Opportunity arrived in 2003. Both Spirit and Oppy were designed to explore Mars for 90 days. Spirit remained operational until the summer of 2011 and Opportunity, roving strong now in its 9th year, is still sending back data.

You can track Curiosity's progress to the Red Planet here in real time:  
Where is Curiosity?


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