Climbing Mt. Sinai

Climbing Mt. Sinai

Earlier this month NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the area where Mt. Sharp is located. The satellite used its HiRISE camera system to image the region. Amid the slope and jumble and dunes of Mars it photographed something with a symmetric shape and unusual color. That something was another robot of exploration called the Curiosity Mars Rover. This robot has been operating on the planet since August, 2012.

In the last 4 years and many months Curiosity has ambled across nearly 16 kilometers of the Martian surface. An able geologist, the golf cart sized mobile science lab has sampled a multitude of sites and made a number of important discoveries, including the past presence of water in the region where it operates. Its many images have included cracked layers of rock, dune filled depressions, and no few martian dust devils.

Curiosity is now in the process of climbing Mt. Sharp. In the cold, thin atmosphere of Mars its six wheels turn and propel it steadily forward and upward. When we say climb it is scaling features and following a path watched very closely by its controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It has gained an elevation of 165 meters. The peak it is assaulting is 5.5 kilometers in height…that’s taller than Mt. Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. So it has a ways to go!

This is certainly not meant to diminish the feat of having a semi-autonomous mobile lab at work day-to-day on a world tens of millions of kilometers away from Earth. The slopes it climbs are challenging for a robot and every centimeter is truly new territory. Yet the inclines are kept within its carefully designed operating parameters, so it tackles fairly low angles of gravel and sand. Still, those angles offer a hazard, particularly for its well worn wheels, communications systems, and the delicate instruments on board.

Will it climb up the shoulders of the mountain and reach the top of Mt. Sharp? As its objective is to follow the science and seek traces of water the summit is probably not the mission’s key goal. Yet even if Curiosity were to stop transmitting tomorrow (it shows no indication of wanting to do so) its mission to date would be an overwhelming success.

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HiRISE image shows the Curiosity Rover near the base of Mt. Sharp. The purple-blue dot near the center is the rover. The odd color of the rover is due to post-processing of the image. For comparison Curiosity is the size of a golf-cart (2.9m long x 2.7m wide).

The crisp image from HiRISE shows an unforgiving terrain. It looks forbidding and may be full of surprises. There was something about the rugged nature of the mountain, its ocher coloration, and the sense of loneliness I felt when I first saw the picture that made me think of the prophet Moses and that long-ago first climb of Mt. Sinai. I’m not sure why that Biblical event sprang to mind except that it offers a unique symbolism of humanity facing an unknown. Moses was a lonesome outcast, far from home in a bitter wilderness seeking truth and meaning to his life. He found an answer on the mountain, and was a different person when he returned from the summit.

It would be remarkable if Curiosity reached the summit of Mt. Sharp and surveyed the land all around it. What would its camera eyes see? And would its controllers have it come back down? If so, what discoveries would it bring back? Certainly not a burning bush or a robotic version of the Ten Commandments in hexadecimal format! But the journey upward will not be without reward, even if we just learn something about ourselves and our very human capabilities in the face of wonder.

 

(Note on image at top: mosaic “self-portrait” of the Mars Curiosity Rover composited and post-processed by NASA JPL. Mt. Sharp is to the left in the background.)

 

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The Workaday Spacewalk

The Workaday Spacewalk

As I write two astronauts are performing a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station. I like to call the ISS “Izzy.” This was a nickname for the station used throughout the novel Seveneves by author Neal Stephenson.  I try to catch the daily updates from Izzy. I find it all very interesting. Currently serving aboard are 6 explorers: 3 Russian cosmonauts named Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzihkov, and Oleg Novitskiy, a French astronaut named Thomas Pesquet, and 2 American astronauts. Currently the spacewalk features the 2 Americans: Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson. Just before lunchtime (EST) Peggy Whitson broke the record for most accumulated spacewalk time for a female astronaut. That’s amazing and I wonder if such records will always be kept.

I’m watching a livestream courtesy of NASA TV. Its nice to full screen it and see all the happenings via the astronauts’ helmet cams. While I hammer out LabVIEW code I pick up voices and glance at images. Their EVA work seems at times strenuous, detail-oriented, and intense. But what is striking me today is how workaday it all seems. I’ve read that astronauts make it all look “easy” because of their long hours of training. I’m sure as in most things practice makes perfect. Yet from my vicarious view over the shoulder of each astronaut today’s deployment of protective covers seems like a routine task being undertaken by two focused yet almost casual professionals. And that sense of normalcy is pretty cool. It’s nice to watch an event where rationality, eagerness, and common-sense rule.

Not that today’s spacewalk was not without incident. One of the covers that was to be deployed went adrift. On the Izzy Cam it became a receding dot against the dark, starless sky. There was brief talk about going to retrieve it but that was ruled out. The tracking team noted it was in a position ahead of the station and poses no “re-contact hazard.” I think that means the lost cover will not become a thing that goes bump in the night.

The team on the ground worked with existing hardware to put together a Plan B. They need to cover up a section of the station’s docking adapter. They opted to use the bag that the covers come in. Shane and Peggy were pretty quick to adapt what materials they had to get the job done. Listening in, the casual viewer might not have known that anything had gone awry. No worries, I heard Shane say. Pretty cool.

The spacewalk continues and my workaday salad is now depleted. Back to the lab with me as Peggy, Shane, and company circle the Earth. Keep up the good work, you guys!