Six Wheels on the Ground

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Today at 2:55PM PST, we heard the words “Tango Delta Nominal.” It was code for Touch Down, and the Rover is operational. Precedence landed on Mars. The JPL rover built and tested just across the road from my office performed flawlessly during the entry, decent, and landing.

I watched the event from home in a massive IT set-up. I streamed the event on my TV through my PlayStation and YouTube. On my IPad, I had our virtual watch party with five or six friends. I had my work laptop with it’s two screens set ups so I could be in a team chat room, follow a lab-wide chat room, and a telemetry page they gave us access to so we could watch real time data of the landing. Meanwhile I was loaded with messages, texts, and social media posts. I didn’t have anything to do with the landing, but not like anyone at JPL did. The landing sequence was autonomous, and as I blogged yesterday, the whole process was complete before we received a signal that it began. Even the folks in mission control cold only sit, watch, and hope.

All of us in the watch parties were nervous yet excited. There was a lot to go wrong, a lot at stake, and we spent a lot of our hard work. The first sigh of relief was when we got word of a successful parachute deployment, knowing the immediate failure would come harshly. Word that the thrusters lit meant the worst was over. Then, Tango Delta Nominal. Quickly, word came over that the rover was reporting it was safe, and in less than a second a picture of the landing site was posted.

What made it fun was seeing everyone’s reaction – and by everyone, I mean world wide. The best ones were the funniest ones. Like in reference to that picture, we saw:

“Kudos to the software engineers who were able to photoshop the Martians out of the pictures so quickly.”

Someone tweeted:

“Don’t let NASA fool you. “Percy” is no lovable, touchy feely explorer. It’s actually a two-ton, nuclear powered, titanium robot that is going to spend a decade trampling over Mars, drilling into it mercilessly and stealing some rocks.”

Another tweet came from an account called “SarcasticRover” said:

“Finally understand how Woody felt when Buzz Lightyear showed up.”

The rover is now going through it’s safety checks and uploading the data collected during landing. We will start getting high resolution photos tomorrow and possibly a video. The rover should start moving around in the next few weeks as the operational situation is checked out. On day 30, the floor on the rover will drop allowing the Integrity Mars Helicopter to be deployed where it will begin its tests to be ready for first flight. And that’s when I will leave you with the last quote of the day that came from a flight engineer:

“Now, all we need is to get the rover to poop out a helicopter, and we can call this a win.”

Across the area, JPLers are celebrating (safely). JPL’s motto is “Dare Mighty Things”, and this was the mightiest thing we dared. Last January, when they announced the rover name, I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan. Up to that point, we hadn’t faced that much of an uphill battle, so it seemed like a choice by a politician. When the rover left the lab last February, we still didn’t know what was coming ahead. Engineers and technicians finished launch protocols in the middle of this pandemic while some three thousand miles from home in Florida. Project specialists finalized their plans when they couldn’t even be in the same room to talk. All of JPL had to celebrate with each other alone, not the way we wanted to spend it. Yet this mission was successful. This mission Persevered, and that rover earned its name today.

Seven Minutes of Terror & Peanuts

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Tomorrow (Thursday, February 18) at 3:55 EST, 12:55 PST, the Mars Rover Perseverance (also known as Mars 2020) will attempt a landing on Mars. Since the day I arrived at JPL, all the talk was about this rover. It was built across the street from my office. I performed audits at suppliers producing hardware for this mission, and we have been eagerly anticipating this landing since the launch last July. While I spend little time on each project, Persey is probably the mission I have had the most touch time since I came to JPL. Granted, it isn’t nearly as much as the thousands who put seven years of their lives to make this mission come true, but it is still exciting to think we are near the end.

I did a blog a couple years ago about the mission:

https://bearfeed.net/2019/06/19/mars-2020-is-coming/

While we landed Curiosity with nearly the same platform and design, the nerves are high. The landing tomorrow will come with what became known as the Seven Minutes of Terror. Landing this rover is incredibly hard. For starters, Mars has an atmosphere, but its really thin. It is thick enough that unless you get the angle right with the right heat shield, the mission will burn up. So there is a heat shield to take the lander from its cruise speed of 24,000 mph to around 900 mph. The heat shield won’t do much more to slow things down, so there are parachutes. Again, the atmosphere is thin, so the parachutes can only get the lander down to 200 mph, so there is thrusters to lower the decent rate to 2 mph. However, the thrusters will stir up so much dust that it could destroy the instruments. So, the rover is actually dropped from a sky crane as it nears the surface, the wire holding the rover is cut, the thrusters are released and the rover is landed.

The whole process from 24,000 mph to sitting on the red planet will take seven minutes. It takes fourteen minutes for the signal from Mars to reach Earth. So, when we hear that the mission has started the landing sequence, it would have been over for at least seven minutes before.

So, why call it seven minutes of terror? Because, while we did it once, we were sweating bullets then as much as now. For instance, when Curiosity was launched, the software for the landing wasn’t on board. They uploaded it when it was in route. Rumor is, the same happened this time. Rumor is, there is a lot of things to be worried out. Until word comes back that we have six wheels on ground, we are all terrorized.

How do we cope? Peanuts. In the 1960s, JPL was building and launching the Ranger missions. Ranger 1 thru Ranger 6 failed. One of the main engineers, thought that folks were getting too skittish, so he brought peanuts to the launch of Ranger 7 to share with his collogues. Ranger 7 was not only a success, it was flawless. Since then, peanuts have been in the room for every JPL launch, and if you tune you are bound to see a few jars sitting around.

As nervous as we are, this is also really exciting. I mean, I worked for companies before that were well known by the public, but let’s just say they weren’t looked upon kindly. The Empire State Building is lit up red for this landing. Piccadilly Square in London is showing a landing countdown. Heck, even Krispy Kreme has a Mars donut this week. I see all this and I say “this is my job, you are celebrating my job, how cool is that.”

I encourage all of you to tune in and watch what they can show you. The landing will be on NASA TV and on YouTube. It will start at 2:!5 PM EST (11:15 AM PST). And as long as the seven minutes don’t become a terror, it will make history.

Winter Storm Warning

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Los Angeles County is currently under a Winter Storm Warning.

It is Snowing at my house.

No I am not kidding, yes this is real. This is not some, “Hollywood People can’t stand temperatures below 65/” There is an honest to Betsy Winter Storm Warning in effect.

From the National Weather Service: “Heavy snow expected. Total snow accumulations 4 to 8 inches above 4500 and 2 to 4 inches between 3000 and 4500 feet. Wind gusts up to 65 mph.”

To be fair, I am at around 1100 feet elevation, so I am officially outside the warning area, but the warning area is just a mile up the hill from me.

That being said, just before I started writing this post, Auggie and I were watching some crocodile sized tears falling out of the sky. After a bit, I noticed they were getting chunky. By the time I got my phone out to take pictures, white balls that clearly weren’t hail splattered on the hood of my car. They melted in an instant, but this Northerner knows snow when he sees it.

Its a cold day for Southern California. Low of 34, high of 49, and most the overcast day has been in the low forties. All weekend it had been cooler, but this has been a lowpoint.

The rain was different as well. It’s rained each day for the last four – coming and going like today, and full-on toad choker on Saturday. It’s the first time we had any real rain since last March. This does become the wet season for us, and that’s supported by rain most days this whole week. For half my house, the wet is welcoming because it calms the allergies I tend to get. However, getting a puppy’s feets wet is the worst kind of torture there can be. So every time a pup has to do his business, he must cry in pain.

Auggie’s always been like that. I remember when he was just six months old, and we were still figuring out the potty training game. A cold wet rain was falling when I got home from work and took him outside. He sat next to the door wanting to go back in for fifteen minutes; and I waited him out. Finally after getting the job done, we ran inside for some well deserved wet doggie belly scratches. It just was hell up until that point.

So, don’t mind me as I get out my snow blower, driveway salt, and ice scraper. We’ll get through this like all those other catastrophes like earthquakes, sharknados, and the invention of avocado toast. Us Californians are tough like that.

From Somewhere in the Dark Tunnel

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Four Months. It’s been four months since my last blog post. Pretty pathetic don’t you think?

Well, we are in a pandemic. We knew things would be different. It’s just a question how we can get back to what we want to get back to. So I am trying to get back to blogging.

Part of the challenge with blogging for is venue related. Before this pandemic began, I had a weekend routine. I would head to Starbucks every Saturday and Sunday morning, and spend a couple hours banging out meaningless words. Stay at home orders, and there is no Starbucks to sit at. I would also write stuff while on travel in hotels. No Travel, No Hotels. If you think that staying at home would give me the means to keep up the blog – well, there isn’t a lot around the house that is blog worth, and it is my man cave not my write cave.

What have I been doing during this whole thing? Well, not much and still a lot. My work situation is really good. Under out government contract, any time we can’t do our job because of a stay at home order we can charge to administrative leave. While I am not out at suppliers or running around, I stayed busy regardless, and find myself getting behind. I work from home, and haven’t physically seen my coworkers in ten months. I’ve streamed a lot of shows – like remember when the best thing about the pandemic was when we could binge Tiger King? I have played loads of video games. I’ve avoided cleaning, had nearly everything delivered, and watch tons of sports.

Don’t get me wrong, this has been a difficult time. Here in Los Angeles County, we are in a hot zone. During the summer, we worried over the time when we reached 1000 new cases a day; then in a few weeks there was the spike to 3000 new cases a day. Currently we average 12,000 new cases a day. Due to a falling out with my doctor (that was justified), my health deteriorated until I had to be hospitalized in July for a few days. Now with a new doctor and the help of 13 pills a day, I am getting by. I had an issue with the city regarding my lawn. I had my license temporarily suspended due to a paperwork mix-up. I got a dreaded IRS letter. Depression wrecks me. Anxiety wrecks me.

It amazes me how long I’ve gone without normal things. I changed the oil in my car in January, and still haven’t reached the 3000 miles needed for the next. I haven’t cut my hair since July. I can go weeks without leaving my property – and if it wasn’t for my washer and dryer in the garage, wouldn’t have a need to leave the house.

Like I said, I do want to get back to a regular blog. The goal is to publish a new one weekly. God knows what I am going to write about. I will probably bore you with rants about avocados, video game reviews, or random memories. I guess it doesn’t matter, what matters is looking for the light at the end of the tunnel – and this is how I plan on heading there.

Clearing the Air on No Clear Air

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Let me get this out of the way right now – I am currently not in any danger of the California Wildfires making the news daily. The nearest fire to me is about 25 miles away and isn’t moving my way. So, before you say a ‘stay safe’ or ‘be careful’ please direct your concerns to those who have already lost homes and lives to the fires. If that changes, then you will get a different update. Send your thoughts and prayers to those in need, but accept that I am not one.

That being said, there are a couple fires in the area. The Bobcat fire is the one twenty-five miles away in the San Gabriel Mountains above Arcadia and Monrovia. While a small neighborhood is on evacuation notice, most of the fire is burning deeper into the San Gabriels. Already at 33,000 acres, the fire crews are just letting it burn and is only 6% contained. Wildfires, as dangerous as they are, bring balance to the ecosystem. Fires clear dead brush, improve the soil, and open up the land for new growth. Fire crews will only contain fires that need to be contained. With all the fires across the west, they are letting this go and there are suggestions that it won’t be until mid-October.

The Bobcat, as well as the El Dorado Fire in Riverside, is producing a lot of smoke. There’s been little wind the last few days, which allows for better fire control, but has meant the smoke is lingering. The haze started up middle of last week, but then it came in hard over the weekend. Thursday and Friday, the air quality was listed as “Unhealthy for Sensitive People”. Saturday it was just “Unhealthy.” It lay so think that I couldn’t see across the Crescenta Valley to the Verdugo Mountains, just a couple miles away. Through daylight hours, the sky was orange or a shade of sepia. While there is a bit of a campfire smell, it was more acrid. Ash is always around, either lightly, or in flakes, which seems to only outline the cobwebs that have been hidden up until now.

Currently, I am running an air cleaner and recently changed the HVAC filter. It’s warm enough to keep the AC running,which will help clean the air as well. Otherwise, it is like what most of 2020 is, waiting for things to be over.

Once in a Fortnite

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During the pandemic, we all need something to help pass the time. I hadn’t been writing much. Not here in the blog, obviously, and not in general. I don’t go anywhere. And you can only watch Tiger King so many times before it stops being funny. So, what have I been spending time doing?

I’ve been playing Fortnite.

Now, either you know Fortnite or you don’t. It is an online game that has around 20 million active players worldwide at any given time. Free to play on gaming counsels, PC, and even mobile applications; Fortnite has been around for three years, which is ten lifetimes in the gaming world. It’s hugely popular in younger demographics, specifically teen and preteen, which can make my 48-year-old skills feel a bit creepy, but that isn’t the point.

I mean, it’s crazy how many teens are in this game … but it’s not creepy, promise.

Fortnite, or specifically, Fortnite: Battle Royal is a game about survival. You are placed into an arena with 99 other online players. The arena is set-up as an island with streams, mountains, villages, farms, fortresses, and other bits and bobs that make up the landscape. It is (in whatever is Fortnite dimensions) a five-kilometer by five-kilometer map. You are loaded up with nothing but 100 hit points and a pickax you can use to harvest building materials (wood, stone, & metal). Around the island are seeded ammo and weapons, like pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, and “others” (more on that later). There are also chests full of goodies to help your load in. You can also find bandages and medkits to heal your hit points, and shield potions to add up to an additional 100 hit points on top of your health. The objective of the game is to be the last one standing; however you get there. The winner is given a screen sowing “VICTORY ROYAL”, which I must say is way more satisfying than it sounds.

The best way to describe the game is to think of it like the book/movie Hunger Games (which was a concept stolen from a Japanese movie named Battle Royal … and Fortnite using that title is not a coincidence). The early game (the first minute or two), is like the cornucopia portion of Hunger Games. Without weapons or sufficient armor, it is a mad dash to grab whatever items you can get your hands on, all while everyone else is doing the same. Typically this means racing another player to a good item, and if you get there second you can expect to be taken out. It’s worth noting that as the game continues, a ‘storm’ closes in on the arena. Defined by enclosing circles, the storm will deal damage to any players caught outside of the safe zone, so as the game continues players are drawn closer and closer to each other. After a minute or two things settle down, and the mid-game goes into a farm mode. The building materials mentioned before are used to build basic structures that can help to get the high ground or defenses later in the game. Plus, with time you can find higher quality weapons and items. This mid-game period may give you 1v1 or 3rd party eliminations as you come across other players. Once you reach the last ten to fifteen players, the late game becomes a strategic showdown. Some try to act the sniper, some jump into the fire to hunt down others, some do some kind of mix. The storm is fairly narrow, and if the game goes on long enough, it will consume the whole map. You can get lucky and find yourself in the late game, but it takes skill to close out a victory. Depending on if you get taken out early or last the whole game, each round could take between fifteen minutes and less than thirty seconds.

On its surface, this game sounds violent and horrible for kids, but in their defense playing the game doesn’t give you that impression. Yes, this is about weapons and attacking other characters, but there is no blood. When you hit someone with a weapon, you see a number corresponding to the damage inflicted. The animation jumps slightly, but not in a way that seems violent. When you eliminate (or “elim”) an opponent, the animation shows a drone appear and zapping up the character into pixels. There’s nothing realistic about it. In fact, it’s incredibly campy.

That’s not the only thing campy about the game. You can change your character’s appearance by changing it’s ‘skin’. The default skin is a female (or far less frequently, male) dressed in an adventurer outfit; however, you can change it to be everything from a mechanic to a Korean pop star to a lazy jerk. Then again, you can also be a cat riding a robot. My two victory royals came when I was a bratwurst. So, it doesn’t sound so violent when your scuba diver is taken out by a banana with legs. There isn’t much opportunity for bullying typical in online gaming (also called trolling). You have no way to interact with your opponents except for additional dances (called emotes) you can have your character do. Emotes aren’t good for trolling in Fortnite because, for one, they are really campy, and for two, they are noisy so they can draw attention to other players looking to take you out. Even when someone tries to troll you with an emote, it’s hard to take it seriously when it is Captian America playing a llama shaped cowbell.

Why is this game so popular, you may ask. A number of reasons.

For one, it’s free .. kinda. You can download and play the game for free as long as you want. The game does offer “v-coins” which you can purchase and use to buy skins, outfits, emotes, new pickaxes, and other fun stuff. There’s also a battle pass, but i will get back to that later. This is actually a brilliant move by Epic Games, the developer; because as much as we love a free game, we don’t realize we are paying for it. In the two months I have been playing, I probably spent $75 on this “free game”, but that is part of the love.

Another reason it is so popular is that it is never the same game twice. You load into the game on a “battle bus”, a flying bus coasting a kilometer above the arena, that you have to skydive and glide out of to reach the game. While you can cover some distance when you leave the bus, it will enter and exit the arena in a random straight line – meaning you don’t enter into the same place twice. The storm circles are random as well, and the seeding of weapons & chests can change randomly. Also, when you are assigned 99 other opponents in a pool of millions, you may never play the same player twice. That’s just the basics, not the really cool stuff.

How Epic Games has sustained Fortnite’s popularity is that it changes the game regularly. Every three months or so, they change the game’s theme in what they call a “season”. This could be pirate-themed or volcano themed or zombie-themed. When I started playing, the map was nearly completely covered with water. Since the new season started and it is celebrating a Marvel Comics storyline, so we have Doctor Doom, Iron Man, and Thor themed stuff everywhere. It’s not just the big changes, sometimes, you show up and there is a new point of interest on the map. In fact, this Marvel theme is more like a Marvel story, because there clearly is something going on with the map that is leading to a bigger and bigger event.

This is part of Epic Game’s genius. Every season, they offer a ‘battle pass’, where for $20 you can get special items and do additional challenges. It doesn’t change the gameplay in a way that gives anyone a tactical advantage, but it adds to the fun. Even a ten-year-old can pool up $20 over three months, so it’s incredibly popular. Especially when you think that Epic probably got a nice chunk of change from Marvel to promote their characters in-game.

The game is so popular that hundreds of players make a living playing Fortnite, and it may not be how you think There are competitions, including a world championship that awarded the winner a million bucks last year, but that’s not what I am talking about. Really good pro players will go to Twitch or YouTube and stream them playing the game. People watching them play will occasionally donate to their stream. Commonly, it’s nothing more than a dollar per donation; however, good players can get tens of thousands of followers watching for hours and hours. Some of these players will make THOUSANDS EVERY DAY as they play. It’s through one of those players that I got interested in the game. Going by Nick Eh 30, this player runs a family-friendly stream where he shows his mad skills and a great sense of humor. In his early twenties and still living with his parents, he said when he started streaming Fortnite, he wouldn’t tell his parents as they didn’t approve of him playing games for couple hours a day. Now, he streams for seven hours a day, follows their rules (no swearing, expect your followers to say ‘please and thank you’, and if he doesn’t win a game he does 10 push-ups to keep fit); and he clearly turns over his earnings to support the family (who probably didn’t need it, but he’s the kind of guy who does it as ‘the right thing to do’). I mean, he is Canadian, they are like that up there. I hated online gaming because I didn’t want to deal with the personalities of people who only got good at one game and think it makes them the most important person in the world … and then finding out they are 12 years old. Nick proved that Fortnite supports those who are just looking for a good time, so I gave it a try.

I fit in Fortnite between meetings or after work. Because the games are short, over two and a half months I have about 850 games played. I have three victory royals, the first took nearly 750 games to win — and honestly, it was the best game I ever played. On average, I get about one elimination a game, and can get four or five if I am feeling it. That first win, I had fifteen elims. I covered much of the map, had to do major heals, and got really lucky more than once. However, when that screen froze and the “VICTORY ROYAL” showed up, it was maybe the highlight of the pandemic for me.

So, that’s what I have been up to. If you play Fortnite as well, drop me a note and maybe we can hook-up in-game for some duals or squads (right now my only Fortnite friend is the 11-year-old stepdaughter of a coworker). Otherwise, I will keep grinding out the elims and try to get another victory.

Percy’s On Its Way

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Yesterday at 7:50am EDT (4:50am PDT), the Mars 2020 mission lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin its journey to land the rover Perseverance on Jezero Crater on Mars. Launching at the first opportunity its launch window, Mars 2020 didn’t start off without some rocky moments. One of which happened at 4:29am PDT, when a 4.5 Magnitude Earthquake centered just 10 miles from JPL shook us all up a little; though it was mild enough to cause no damage. So you can say, things were quite exciting around here.

Mars 2020 did have a post-launch hiccup. Due to a concerning sensor reading, they placed the spacecraft into “safe mode”, a condition that shuts down all critical instruments to protect them. After some diagnostics, there was an all clear, and is back into normal conditions.

The live launch would have been something to see. Mars 2020, with it’s cruse stage, heat shield, landing crane, and rover is one of the heaviest unmanned space missions in history. More weight means more boom at launch. They strapped that bad boy on top of an Atlas V-541 nicknamed the Dominator, one of the most powerful rockets in history. That power was evident right from the beginning, a fact emphasized by the time to clear the tower. Apollo missions usually took about 8 seconds to clear the tower, the Atlas in 5. Now the mission is traveling at over 24,000 miles an hour, but it has 300 million miles to go. While trajectory changes may impact the arrival, currently the mission is scheduled to land on Mars on February 21st, 2021.

Like most JPLers, I watch the launch from home with a sleeping pup by my side. Previous missions usually came with watching parties and events around JPL and Pasadena, but with the pandemic going on all of those were canceled months ago. While I worked on Mars 2020, there would be so many direct support JPLs, friends, and family that I probably wouldn’t have gotten an invite to those watch parties. I had plans to head to Florida to watch the launch in person, but the pandemic again ruined that idea. So, it was my couch and my Auggie.

I was surprised by my reaction to the launch. I’ve always loved to watch a rocket launch, and seemed to either be excited or in awe. This time, I was nervous. Everything thing on the stream that looked slightly off made me panic, or caused me to fear the worst. This was our biggest mission, with millions of hours of hard work behind it. I told someone, “This must be what it feels like to care about a mission and the people who made it happen.”

For now, we wait. There will be six trajectory adjustments along the way. The first in two weeks, the second in two months. In the meantime, we will just let our friend fly.

Countdown to Perseverance

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This Thursday, at 7:50am EDT, Mars 2020 (and the Perseverance Rover) is expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, FL.

If you can’t physically be there for the launch, you can watch it on nearly any streaming service including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Just search for NASA TV or JPL. It maybe on cable and network TV, whether or not they pick it up, but it’s worth checking when it comes along.

Mars 2020 is the largest, most complex Mars mission to date. Designed, built, and perfected by my colleges at the Jet Propulsion Lab, the billion dollar project took years to come together. Now, it sits on the launch pad going to the final bells and whistles in hopes the July 30th launch window is a winner. Build in the shadow of it’s predecessor, Curiosity, which launched and landed in 2012, Perseverance is heading up in search of signs of previous Marian life.

To get all this done, there a bunch of key instruments on board:

SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) uses spectrometers, a laser, and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life.  I visited the company that designed and built this instrument (literally a garage, there was a motorcycle repair shop next door).  They gave me a laymen’s version of what SHERLOC does, and it essentially will scan the ground for signs of organics.  In other words … if there was life at any time in the dirt under the rover, this guy will find it.  This is the unit that could prove that Earth wasn’t the only life-bearing planet, that we aren’t alone in this universe.

By the way, if you can’t tell JPL and NASA use heavy hands when naming their instrumentation.  Sometimes forcing an acronym to work even if it is quirky.  SHERLOC is an investigation tool, kind of like the fictional detective.  Well, SHERLOC happens to have a camera that acts as a sidekick and helps to make observations of how the instrument is doing … that’s right, it’s called WATSON.

MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) is another big one.  Mars’s atmosphere isn’t breathable by humans, but it has some oxygen in it.  If humans are ever going to visit or live there, then we need to know if we can produce enough oxygen to sustain life.  MOXIE is the first demonstration model of how that could be done.

Other instruments like PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) are designed to take better reading so the geology of Mars.

Mars 2020 will also be equipped with the most advanced planetary cameras in history.  Few people know that while black-and-white photos are transmitted like photos on your phone, a color picture from Mars is typically is a rendering of scanned data with known feature output – think of it as there is someone on Mars explaining to an artist on Earth what they see then the artist recreates that result.  Mars 2020 will have cameras that can capture and transmit real color photos. 

Then in what is a major forward-thinking idea, the rover will have what’s called a Sample Caching System (SCS).  Like with Curiosity, the rover will be equipped with a rock drill to allow the retrieval of material for testing.  The SCS intends to take that mater and place it inside of metal tubes.  Somewhere, the tubes are stacked in a big cache by the rover and left behind.  Then somewhere in the future, a mission will send something to that cache, pick up all the tubes, then return them to Earth.  If this works out, it will be the first time material from another planet will be brought home (or our home I guess).  The SCS is going to fly, we’re pretty sure about that – but what we aren’t sure is when something will pick it up, or how, or … anything.  There is no mission planned yet to do that, but we are still doing the sampling.

Crazy right?  I mean, this is all out there and crazy.

Oh by the way … we’re going to put a helicopter on it.

You heard me.

Mars 2020 will include the Mars Helicopter.  It is a four blade drone that has the intention to fly ahead of the rover to look for potential hazards.  It comes with a docking station and everything.  It’s a hell of an idea, because like with landing the rover, no signal can be sent in real time due to the delay between Earth and Mars.  You basically have to pre-program any flight.  Thing is, if the helicopter crashes or screws up, it won’t hurt the bulldozer of a rover – so we the approach was a ‘do no harm’ mission low funded.  The inside joke is if the Helicopter can lift off and take a Rover Selfie it will be a mission success.

The launch window starts on July 30th and goes through August 15 with time frames varied over those weeks. The one problem is, if we miss the August 15th date, the window closes for a couple years. So, it’s go time.

The State of Sport

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Hello again from La Crescenta / Glendale, CA. We are still on lockdown, and when we seem to take a step forward, we take a step back. The city announced on Friday that barbershops and hair stylists could open, and some restaurants can have in-house dining. Yet, since Saturday, we’ve been on early evening curfew. So even if I did get my hair cut, I couldn’t show it off after sundown. So it is generally status quo.

What isn’t status quo is the continued opening up of the sporting world. I make no bones about my love for sports, and that background of an event here and there is what is the least obvious thing that I miss. I miss it bad.

Part of it is how it ended. There was a 48 hour period where sport after sport suspended operations, some delaying the inevitable with early plans to play without fans, but that didn’t last long. In fact, the week it all went down, I had big plans. Two friends and I had planned a guys “pseudo-bachelor party” weekend in Nashville, centered around a hockey game. The guest of honor is a big Flyers fan, and they were playing the Predators. Over three or four days, our conversations went from”I’m all in”, to “I am in still even if they don’t play”. to “maybe we should hold off”. Three months later, no hockey, not hockey playoffs, not even a planned date to return.

Hockey, though, is one of the sports that do have a plan. When they get the go ahead, they will start a 24 team playoff that looks complicated on paper, but is going to be fun. They’ll play it at designated host cities where the entire Western conference will play in one city, and the Eastern in another. Nascar made it back early, racing in front of empty stands, and packed a bunch of races in the first few weeks that they might get in a full schedule by year end. Even if I don’t want to, I got to talk about basketball because De3an Innes is a Clippers fan. NBA are still trying to figure out what to do, and might have player problems when they get there. An NBA plan includes some regular season games, but players on teams out of the playoffs have said they won’t play. MLB is likely the most messed up, because players and owners are arguing over the pro-rating pay.

NFL is likely the least effected, though may play in front of empty stadiums. If you missed it, the NFL Draft was a spectacle. I love watching the draft anyway, but they did it remotely including cameras in houses for many of the teams. The Commish Goodell’s basement chair (and the rumors that he was replacing window screens between rounds) became a talking point. The star of the show happened when the NE Patriots made their first pick, the cameras went to Head Coach Bill Belachek’s house, which looked like he was set up on his dining room table … except it wasn’t him. Sitting at the computer was Nike Beleachek, the family dog.

Since I love sports of all kind, I would be remiss to ignore world wide sports … in fact I insist. This weekend, the National Rugby League, Austraila’s rugby league, returned to empty stadiums and piped-in crowd noise. I’m a passing fan of the NRL, but when it’s good it’s great. What I like is that one stadium has seats only on two sides, and in the end zones, resident houses are close enough to see the game … so they set up scaffold and invited their mates. On June 12, my really favorite Australian Sport – Aussie Rules Football – returns. They are being so careful that they have only set a schedule for the next month. Soccer is making a comeback. Germany’s Bundesliga has been back for almost a month. England, Spain, and Italy won’t be far behind with dates set.

What has benefited from the lockdown is eSports, or competitive computer games. What can be suprising about eSports for the uninformed is how massive it is already. The foundation of the eSports community is in Asia/ In South Korea, the top spectator sport is competitive Starcraft II .. and has been since the game was released, only because it replaced the then biggest sport, Starcraft, which had been huge since the late ’90s. A personal favorite, League of Legends (which deserves a blog to itself) is so big world wide that with World Finals drew more viewers than the Super Bowl. Players, most of them not even old enough to rent a car, can make over a million dollars a year playing professionally.

While eSports prefer games to be played in stadiums or studios – part for the fan involvement, and part for the competitive integrity — the lockdown allowed for the games to continue remotely. Networks like ESPN, FS1, and NBCSN, hungry for something to show that wasn’t a replay, routinely show eSports. The main ones are sports we know, like NFL Madden, or NBA 2K, or motor racing simulators; but they still find a way to make compelling TV. Whether or not support continues when we get live sports yet to be seen, but at least they are getting the attention they deserve.

For any sports fan now, we can take what we can get. It might even be professional cornhole, which is a thing, but it’s still something.

And I guess that is what we have right now … “It’s still something.”

Hello From the Other Side

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Hey there. Y’all miss me? It’s your friendly neighborhood idiot, finally breaking the seal on the bear cave and writing some meaningless words onto the blog. It’s been nearly three months since my last post, and yes the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame, but maybe not in the ways you might think.

For the record, I did not get COVID-19 and until just yesterday followed all the rules placed on us for Los Angeles County, Glendale, and California. You won’t hear me downplaying the situation in this blog either, as by now most of us know someone affected by the disease. That’s not why I stayed away from the blog.

I’ve mentioned this before in passing, and more directly in person, that I find it really hard to blog when I am in an unhappy place. For the last two-and-a-half months, I was in that unhappy land. The obvious points people would make would be “yeah, your life situation during a shelter-in-place must be difficult.” Well, my life situation is a home with just my dog, TV, video games, and take-out is what I used to call ‘a weekend off’. No, my unhappiness was a mixture of things. For one, I bought into the fear and found myself exceedingly anxious when I left the house. For two, the weather – at least early on. Most of March was raining, so even when we wanted to get out of the house we couldn’t – and that creates some unhealthy habits. Also, I had a horrible run of bad luck or bad timing for things. The kicker of which was when the DMV dropped me a snail mail to tell me my license was suspended, which meant by the time it arrived I had been driving on a suspended license for 5 days — when I called them, they said “yeah, our mistake, we’ll fix it”.

Part of the reason why you didn’t see any blogs is the bear cave itself. Normally, I don’t write anything at home. Most of the time, I write at my friendly neighborhood Starbucks – which you can guess isn’t an option now. I tend to compartmentalize locations. I don’t like writing at home for the same reason I don’t like working from home – home is where I chill. Writing, in particular, needs me to be somewhere with little distraction, and the bear cave exists to be as distracting from the rest of the work as possible. I’ve managed to develop a working environment at home, but writing is another thing.

So how was I able to get myself to write a post today? I broke the rules.

Instead of spending memorial day weekend not watching sports; I got out of the house. My great friends, Chadd & Heather Creed, purchased a home during the pandemic in the heart of Temecula’s wine country. At their invitation, I threw the dog into the car and drove down to spend a couple days with them. Of course, the change in scenery is refreshing, and their kitchen table makes for a nice distraction free blog location – but more than anything, being here with friends makes me happy.

Of course, this isn’t over. While counties around Los Angeles are opening up, LA County isn’t. In a future post I’ll probably dig into what life is like these days, but that life continues. How I really feel about it all comes down my anger at a statement I keep hearing: “The New Normal”. For me, that suggests that our bar of life has shifted, and it’s up to us to get used to it. I disagree. This maybe new, but there is nothing normal about it. We are not meant to hide in our homes, avoid gatherings, and stay six feet apart. We were meant to be around each other, talk to each other, and hug each other. This new whatever is becoming more damaging than the disease. The goal shouldn’t be to protect as many people as possible, the goal should be get us back to Normal as fast as possible.

So that it. Sorry I have been missing, and I can’t promise I will be blogging a lot soon; but I want to get back to normal too. If that means crapping out some blogs, that’s what I will do.