Saturday, January 24, 2009

Opportunity on Mars - 5 years and counting

On January 24, 2004 (US time), the Mars rover "Opportunity" joined her twin sister, Spirit, on the surface of Mars. Spaceflight fans from around the world were once again able to follow the evens of entry, descent, and landing via live broadcast from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

When Opportunity sent back its first images shortly after landing, we were astonished to see what appeared to be cliff faces in the distance with outcrops of layered rock, the very thing Opportunity was sent to look for. It looked like a totally alien landscape compared to that in which Spirit landed. Spirit's landing site was strewn with volcanic rocks and looked very much like what we saw with the two Viking landers and the Mars Pathfinder. Opportunity's environs, on the other hand, showed no rocks at all on the surface around her, just sand, and what appeared to be cliff walls all around.

My first impression on seeing the first panorama from Opportunity was, "Gee, it landed in a crater!" Much to my delight, that turned out to be correct. The distant cliff walls were in fact only a few dozen feet away and were not much bigger than a roadside curb on Earth. Opportunity was able to drive over to the outcrop and explore it thoroughly in a couple of weeks.

With a 'warranted' lifetime of 90 sols and a couple of hundred meters of driving, Opportunity has really shown its mettle. It has lasted 5 Earth years on Mars and has driven 14 kilometers away from the crater in which it landed. It proved the past existence of surface water on Mars, spent much of a year inside Endurance Crater, photographed the wreckage of its own heat shield up close, returned the first images of a meteorite sitting on the surface of another planet, got stuck several times in sand dunes, survived a crippling dust storm, and most recently spent more than a year exploring Victoria Crater. It has now embarked on a multi-year, 12 km journey to Endeavour Crater. I hope she gets there!

I'm eternally grateful to JPL for giving the public immediate access to the photos from the rovers. Talented image specialists on sites such as can quickly turn these into full-color or amazing 3D images for the world to see. With Spirit and Opportunity on the move, we get an unprecedented chance to "be there" on Mars while sitting in the comfort of our own homes.

These two launch team patches were produced before Spirit and Opportunity were given their names. MER-A became Spirit and MER-B was Opportunity.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

NASA tests the Lunar Module

On January 22, 1968, NASA launched the Apollo 5 mission, the first - and only - unmanned test of the Lunar Module. The Saturn I rocket used for the launch was the one originally intended to launch the Apollo 1 crew into space in 1967. It was undamaged by the capsule fire and was available for this flight.

Nothing like this had ever flown before - a spacecraft with an engine that could be throttled, and which would by itself not be capable of returning its crew to the Earth.

The LM was already 8 months behind schedule in its development. To prevent further delays, NASA decided to launch the LM without its landing gear, since the legs were not crucial to the test.

A software bug prematurely shut down the descent engine on its initial test. NASA engineers executed a workaround and were able to fire the descent engine twice, and then run a "fire in the hole" test of an emergency separation of the LM's descent and ascent stages.

The test was considered successful enough that a second planned unmanned flight of the LM was deemed unnecessary. The LM for that flight now sits in the National Air and Space Museum.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy birthday, Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin, the second human being to walk on the Moon, turns 79 years young today.

"Dr. Rendezvous" was not one of the more popular astronauts among his peers. However, no one could dispute his mastery of rendezvous theory (which was immensely useful in shaping the Gemini missions), or his flawless EVA techniques on Gemini XII, which proved that man could work effectively outside of a space capsule.

I put together this "Buzz at the ladder" diorama in 2006. It uses a Dragon 1/6 scale Buzz Aldrin figure, which is posable and remarkably detailed. The LM leg is made from wooden dowel and PVC pipe, wrapped in two colors of Mylar insulation blanket and Cadbury chocolate wrapper. The LM ladder rails and "rivets" are made from aircraft aluminum, which was kindly supplied by a fellow space enthusiast from collectSpace. I made the Apollo 11 commemorative "We came in peace for all mankind" plaque by scanning a photo of the actual LM plaque and printing it on aluminum colored contact paper.

I'm looking forward to meeting Buzz at Spacefest next month!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gemini 2

Gemini 2 was the second unmanned test flight of the 2-seat Gemini spacecraft. It was launched into a suborbital flight on January 19, 1965.

This flight was the first monitored from NASA's new Mission Control Center at the Cape. Shortly after launch, the Mission Control Center lost all power and blacked out. This failure was traced to overloaded electrical circuits from the network television equipment that was brought in to cover the flight!

The Gemini 2 capsule was the first US spacecraft that was reused in a subsequent spaceflight. After its mission, the capsule was in good enough shape that it was fitted with a new heat shield and new instrumentation - and flown as a test vehicle for the US Air Force's "Blue Gemini" (Manned Orbital Laboratory) program. It was the only Gemini vehicle that ever flew with USAF insignia.