The Union Recorder

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June 20, 2012

Ask a Martian

MILLEDGEVILLE — Once a year the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. holds its immensely popular Open House event — this year it happened to be on the weekend of June 9 and 10, and Yours Truly was able to attend!

It’s been a couple of years now that I’ve been able to work this huge public venture, so I was excited to participate again this month. Having been a member of the Solar System Ambassadors Program for almost 12 years now I must have earned a few perks!

As usual, I was assigned to the Mars Missions and started out my work on the ATHLETE mission. Like anything at NASA that has capital letters it is one of those infamous acronyms — this one stands for “All Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra Terrestrial Explorer.” It is an amazing machine — at first blush it looks like a giant six-legged spider on wheels.

The prototype on exhibit at JPL was about 20 feet in diameter, and a few times a day the operators made it move for the crowds (and yes, the thing runs off an ordinary laptop). Not only can the central platform move up and down and thus carry heavy equipment such as habitation or lab modules from one place to another, but each of the limbs has multiple articulation points and can be moved independently. They’re more like the remote manipulator arm they used to have on the space shuttle, and which they still have on the International Space Station to date.

Such dexterity has many advantages over, say, the various Mars rovers: if ATHLETE gets a wheel stuck in a sand pit (like the Spirit rover, bless her fuzzy little heart), it simply pulls up the limb and steps over the obstacle. End of problem. Granted, rolling is a far more energy-efficient way of moving that crawling like a spider, but in a pinch it works just fine. In addition, each wheel has a clamp-type attachment gripper that can retrieve tools from the main chassis, such a set of augers to drill into the ground or other rock surfaces. ATHLETE also carries a powerful laser beam to zap rocks at a long distance and analyze the vapor to see if closer examination is needed.

ATHLETE is envisioned to assist with the human exploration of the Moon and Mars, and its basic configuration can be scaled up or down as needed. Ultimately, it will be two three-legged versions that will be attached together to function like the six-legged prototype I worked with.

My next mission was the eight-wheeled rover prototype, which was developed specifically to determine how many wheels a Mars rover would need to be both stable and efficient, and it turned out that six wheels worked just as well as eight — and it saved material, space, weight and cost. What’s not to love? The original eight-wheeled rover is still around; however, nowadays it runs mostly over kids and adults who lie on their stomachs and pretend to be a bunch of rocks. It’s great fun for everyone who participates, and it amply demonstrates the locomotion of the rovers and how they scale incredibly uneven and difficult terrain.

My next mission was the famous 3-D panoramic picture of Mars that the Spirit rover made. During the long cold, dark Martian winter there was not enough sunlight to reach the solar panels of the rover to charge the batteries. There was, however, enough energy to take pictures. And so Spirit took one picture every day, always moving its cameras a little bit to capture a different view, and then in the end 119 images were stitched back together to form a 180 degree view of the Martian horizon. Since the rovers have two cameras that are exactly the width of a pair of human eyes apart you can create actual 3-D images with the help of color filters. The viewer back on Earth then dons a set of 3-D glasses and voila — it’s just like standing on Mars yourself, and the many oohs and aahs attested to the stunning impact of the marvelous image on its audiences.

Finally, I was promoted to a Martian. Apparently, when you know a lot of stuff about Mars you work your way up to the “Ask A Martian” status, and I was thrilled beyond belief when I was entrusted with this important function. My main task was to demonstrate the wheels of the Curiosity rover (it will land on Mars on August 5 this year), but because I was now a Martian I got all sorts of related and unrelated questions as well. From construction materials to wheel patterns to questions about gravity-assist trajectories — I got it all, and it was fascinating. Kids and adults both were fascinated with this latest Mars mission, and with its unusual landing technique of being lowered from underneath a sky crane during the final phase of the touchdown sequence.

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