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.