Mike's MER Journal: Sol 2 (Sol 4 is ~January 4, 2004)
"Ramblings of a Rover Rider"
This Journal contains informal and spontaneous comments by Mars Exploration Rover science team member Mike Sims, normally based at NASA's Ames Research Center. Mike writes: "There is nothing official, approved or necessarily even 100% accurate about my ramblings. My intention in this is to share as honestly as I can a bit of the flavor of what it is like to work on a NASA mission at the scale of a single human being and to convey something about what we are up to. My intention is that if I (and you!) make it through these Journals, you will know great deal more about Mars and what we are up to with MER. My hope is to convey a lot of information and make it accessible to even the youngest of readers." Thanks, Mike, for agreeing to allow P2K to post your thoughts online!
Yesterday I wrote a short note to friends. Today I am going to write a bit more and call it a Journal entry. I feel compelled to begin with a few warnings. First, this is just a few ramblings of a Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team member giving my perspective on how I see things. There is nothing official, approved or necessarily even accurate about my ramblings. If you want truths and accuracy then you should go to Steve Squyres, Pete Theisinger, Dave Lavery, official sources and all that. I apologize in advance for any inadvertent inaccuracies that I'm sure will appear here. This is the first Journal ever by someone who has been repeatedly accused of having no talent for the English language and a complete inability to proof read! I'm much more comfortable with mathematics, physics and computers. Readers should consider themselves warned. My intention in this is to share as honestly as I can a bit of the flavor of what it is like to work on a NASA mission at the scale of a single human being and a bit about what we are up to.
I left last night's shift (MER A Sol 2) at around 3 a.m. and this only reflects what I know up till then.
For those that don't know me I'm a MER science co-investigator with a background in robotics and artificial intelligence. For MER I play many different roles which I anticipate will show up from time to time in my Journal.
Last night we began to fill out the details of planning a future for the rover Spirit in Gusev Crater. We haven't moved an inch yet and haven't yet even stood up but many of us were thinking hard about what we would do the next two to three weeks, and what we would do fifty to a hundred days from now. This kind of long range planning was only the wildest speculation until we landed. Now we know roughly where we are and can see around us we can with some realism think about what we might do. It's all tentative as a thousand things could change it. Remotely operating a rover is dangerous business. If there are computer faults we can't simple reach over and push the reset button and we can't replace the batteries when they go dead. We might die early in our mission and none of the longer plans will take place, or we might (as the Viking landers did before us) live long beyond our nominal design. One must plan for these possibilities. But we've begun to dream of what we might see and where we might go. It feels much like planning a vacation to Hawaii: "Let's plan the good stuff and put off the hard decisions until later when we have to make them."
So, what will we do? We haven't decided yet but the outline of one future is beginning to take form. First, it will take us nine days to stand up, look around, check our self out and then trundle down the ramp and onto the surface. Before egressing the lander we'll look around with our new world with the Pancam and its many filters and we'll remotely probe into the surrounding soils and rocks looking with infrared (Mini-TES) to understand the mineralogy. These will be spectacular but I'll just let them speak for themselves when the data arrives!
And then on to the surface: as with Pathfinder's Sojourner rover, Spirit will imprint its track on a virgin world in the tradition of that first track left on the Moon by Neil Armstrong. We'll then follow the Pope's example and reach down and kiss the soil (presumably with less authority though!) "Kissing the soil" for Spirit will look like stretching out its arm and gently setting down the three instruments in the robotic arm's "hand" - the Microscopic Imager, APXS and Mössbauer spectrometers
- to learn of the texture, elements and iron mineralogy respectively. We'll spend a few days basking in these first "smells" of a fresh land. At this point we might also try to taste our first rock. The clues to the puzzle of the history of Mars reside in the rocks. So we want to use all our instruments on rocks as often as possible. Sometimes the secrets of the rocks are hidden beneath layers of dust, rusts and other surface "crud." In order to get below those layers the arm also has a rock abrasion tool (or "RAT" http://athena.cornell.edu/the_mission/ins_rat.html) that scratches away the surface to expose the clues hidden within.
Next stop could be Sleepy Hollow. At first look, Sleepy Hollow appears to be a secondary impact crater that is about 30 meters away. It's obvious from any orbital image of Mars that it is covered by craters down to very small size. When an object from space strikes a planet it does so with a great deal of energy. It is the energy release from that impact that creates the effective explosion that in turn creates the crater shape that we are familiar with. One of the consequences of that process is that lots of material is dug up and thrown around the area. An impact will expose and distribute rocks and soil that were originally at some depth below the surface. This is one of the interesting facets of impacts for a rover explorer. We can see things that were once at deep without having to dig. Ideally, we might see some layering or stratigraphy that will indicate a history of the geology and chemistry. So, craters are intrinsically interesting places to visit. A secondary crater is a crater caused by rocks falling back to the ground from a primary crater (i.e., one caused by an impact of a space object). Those secondary impacts typically will have less energy than primary impacts and should be less violent and hence dig shallower. It is possible Sleepy Hollow might not even be a crater. Since we are viewing it from the about 30 meters away from one side we aren't yet positive about its shape nor origin. In any case, it should be interesting to understand what is the source of this feature.
On to them, thar hills! We are still working out the details of exactly where we landed. We have three images from the descent landing process (the DIMES camera) that give us a pretty good idea of where we first bounced on the surface. After that first hit, though, we bounced and rolled for maybe a kilometer over roughly a minute. The team is using radio signals and triangulation from features we can see in the distance to determine more precisely our location. I believe we currently know our position within a kilometer with high probability, and we are roughly 9-10 kilometer East of the center of our landing ellipse. As mentioned before, from a scientific perspective this is absolutely great - a wonderful place to land! In addition, if we were to travel 1-2 kilometers East from where we are it would take us to what some consider one of the best locations in all of Gusev Crater. Can we travel that 1-2 kilometers? It is possible, but depends on a number of things falling in that direction. First, where we are at is already a phenomenal site! There is much to be measured and understood at the place where we are currently standing. No one wants to shortchange that understanding. We are still new at operating this rover and its instruments on Mars and we don't yet have a very good sense of the amount of time to do that local characterization. And how long that characterization takes is highly dependent on what Mars throws at us. If all the rocks are similar then things move quickly. If the rocks vary widely and offer interesting puzzles as to origins and evolution then we will move about more slowly. Whatever Mars does throw at us it will be wonderful and exciting, but some pathways will be faster to ferret apart and others slower. How long Mars allows the rovers to stay alive will also strongly affect how far we roam. For my money, even if we don't fully make it to the interesting terrains we see in the distance the journey in that direction will be well worth the cost of admission!
A couple of personal comments:
When away from the operations area I find I really miss being there. I'm away at the moment with the intention of eating, sleeping, bathing and all that, and I find myself being drawn to quickly rush back. I want to know what new data we gotten, any new status of the rover and to get back and contribute. Today I won't go back over for a few hours because I know I'll be best tonight if I eat a regular meal now and take a nap closer to my regular shift time. Last night I could definitely feel the effects of fatigue. It's a natural part of the rush we are in and the long hours. The project has taken a great deal of care to manage the team's fatigue. I wear an Actiwatch accelerometer that keeps track of my sleep cycles. It would have probably been useful to have keep track of heart rates and adrenaline during the first few Sols!
For many individuals the exploration of space and the scientific investigation of outer space are in support of their careers and who they are. For me that equation is turned around. I see myself and my career as tools to be used in our exploration of space. I want to use that tool (i.e., "Michael Sims") as effectively as I can. If I am used up or broken in the process and that betters the goal of our exploration of space then that's great. I'm all about humans exploring and living beyond Earth. The Mars Exploration Rovers and other robotic missions are part of that exploration and steps on our journey. I have a strong sense of humility in working with the MER team and pride to be a part of this. To me it is such an honor to be one of the keepers of the dream.