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To MARS with MER - RESEARCH/ers
Michael H. Sims
Center for Mars Exploration
NASA Ames Research Center
Mike's MER Journal: Sol 5 (~ January 7, 2003)
Today's topics: "Pre-egress" & "Where are we?"
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!
As I understand it our best guess for the day of egressing (coming down from) the lander is now Sol 12 or later. (Ed note: at earliest, next Weds. or Thurs. but it could slip later since, as Project Manager Pete Theisinger said, Spirit on the surface is a priceless asset, and patience and sound engineering is required to get it safely off the lander.) From landing to egress is an interesting period for the science team. (See http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/video/challenges.html IMPACT TO EGRESS) Unlike most the times when we practiced for the mission, during the last few days we have not had to worry about using the instruments nor operating the vehicle. That is because the operations of the rover and instruments (things like when the rover stands up, when the airbags are retracted and what pictures to take) were largely pre-planned months ago. We could get away doing that because we are standing on the lander (okay, I really mean the rover is standing on the lander - that "we" was just wishful thinking!) and we are clear about what we want to do next. So we have this week or two of pre-compiled commands for the rover (things like "unfold the solar panels," "deploy the instrument mast," etc.) and for the instruments (like "take a test image with the microscopic imager," "take a panorama with the Pancam cameras at this resolution," etc.).
The science team has two primary jobs during this time:
- make progress in understanding the science of where we landed
- figure out what we want to do next
In order to understand Mars better (sometimes referred to as "doing Science") we look around at features that are familiar, or at least have patterns that are familiar, and from which we can infer processes. For example, we might notice that the larger rocks seem more rounded and the smaller ones seem more angular (i.e., have more pointy sides). That might imply something about how the big rocks were tumbled and banged against each other in getting to their resting place, and it might imply that the smaller rocks had a different history in getting to their location. The job of the science team is to figure this out. We are doing our best to understand the nature and evolution of the planet - especially as that history relates to water. Water has a special place in our inquiry because on Earth where there is liquid water there is life and where there is life there is liquid water.
One of the fundamental questions we ask of the Universe is "Are we alone"? Is life common in the universe or rare? If we knew whether Mars ever had life or not we would have a third data point on a planetary surface for the prevalence of life or lack thereof. Earth is our first data point. The second data point is the Moon, which most scientists feel confident from the Apollo program's results, is and has always been devoid of life. Unlike the Moon, Mars apparently had a history as a place with liquid water. It might have even been a place comfortable for life. There is still a lot of uncertainly and lack of consensus about what the conditions were like during those early Martian epochs. To fill in part of that puzzle the Mars Exploration Rovers are going to two of the places on Mars believed to be among the most likely to have had water in the distant past. The Spirit rover has landed in Gusev Crater. Was Gusev once covered by a lake? Will Gusev look like a lake bed here on Earth? Will we find carbonate minerals as evidence of that watery past? (Ed note: Mini-TES has already detected more carbonates than seen from orbit, as you can read in JPL's Jan. 9th press release.) These are the sorts of questions we are trying to answer with the MER rovers. We don't really know the answers yet but it is already clear that our landing site in Gusev is quite a spectacular place to look for answers! We look around; we measure things; we look at things from different angles; we create stories to explain what we observe; we form hypotheses to nail down a theory; and we test those hypotheses. The process is a bit more rigorous but not fundamentally different than the process a child goes through in first learning to build a structure from blocks. We have fun at it as well. In addition, we have the huge advantage that many of us get paid to do what we would otherwise do for free! However it is worth noting that a large number of people who contribute to MER volunteer their time and don't get paid at all - more on that another day.
The second task we have during the early part of the mission is to figure out what to do next. In order to do that it is most helpful to know where we are. I had promised to talk about that today, but since the rooster is crowing, my eye lids are drooping, and it's 6:30 a.m. I'll take that up tomorrow.