Guide to the Cosmos

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Newsletter: Exploring JPL

Twice this year, busloads of my eager students had the opportunity to tour JPL. It was my pleasure to accompany them as scientific advisor and translator, while Joan enjoyed revisiting the exciting place where her father worked for many years.


As virtually everyone on this planet knows, JPL is the world leader in unmanned space exploration. Who can forget last year’s thrilling “Seven Minutes of Terror” as Curiosity landed spectacularly on Mars?


JPL’s resume includes 113 major space missions: 68 are completed, 34 are currently active, and 11 are in development. JPL’s missions have explored every planet, traveled farther, survived longer, and discovered more than all other Solar System missions combined. Its leadership is demonstrated by its Red Planet track record: over 2/3rds of JPL Mars missions have been successful, while over 2/3rds of all other Mars missions have failed completely. JPL attempts the greatest challenges and achieves the greatest success.


JPL can trace its history to the 1930’s when a few Caltech students began experimenting with rockets. After one trial resulted in a particularly nasty explosion, the administration “suggested” they find an off-campus launch site. (Exploding things was still a popular student activity in my day, and I got the same “suggestion.”)  Wartime brought U.S. Army sponsorship and the official establishment of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1944, located in the San Gabriel Mountains 7 miles from campus. NASA was formed in 1958 and JPL became its only private-sector research and technology center. While entirely funded by the U.S. Government, JPL remains part of Caltech.


JPL tours are a combination of topical exhibits and old favorites, including replicas of Explorer, Cassini, Voyager, and three generations of ever-larger Mars rovers: Sojourner, Opportunity, and Curiosity. In the picture on the left, I’m trying to figure out how the small cylinder at the bottom unfolds into the large antenna at the top.


Explorer 1, launched by JPL in 1958, was America’s first satellite and our answer to Sputnik. Explorer was also the first satellite to advance science, discovering the Van Allen Radiation Belts that surround Earth and protect our atmosphere from the solar wind.


JPL just celebrated the 9th anniversary of the Cassini mission, which is still exploring Saturn, its rings, and its methane-shrouded moon Titan. Titan is the only other body in the Solar System with an abundance of organic compounds, and the only moon with an atmosphere. Some say Titan may have 10 to 100 times more oil and gas than Earth.


After flying for 36 years, Voyagers 1 is nearly 12 billion miles from Earth (See Voyager Newsletter). JPL has just announced that Voyager 1 found the “edge of our Solar System”, where the solar wind wanes and the interstellar wind becomes dominant. Voyager 1 is the first manmade craft to explore beyond our Solar System. Even at the speed of light, Voyager’s radio signals take 17 hours to reach Earth.



The most topical exhibit is the Spacecraft Assembly Building, site of the final construction of upcoming missions. About a third of the assembly room is shown on the right. The emblems on the walls symbolize past missions. Here, JPL’ers in clean-room attire are assembling SMAP and RapidScat, two missions to study our home planet.



SMAP will measure soil moisture and freeze/thaw conditions across Earth’s entire surface to better understand our global water cycle. RapidScat will measure wind speed and direction above our oceans for weather and hurricane forecasting and monitoring. Hopefully these missions will have more appealing names before they launch in 2014.





The final tour highlight was JPL Mission Control. The walls of this darkened room are covered with automated displays. Mission “aces,” sitting behind row-after-row of computer screens, manage communications with all U.S. unmanned space missions.






This is the nerve center of JPL’s Deep Space Network, a global array of 15 giant radio antennae, several almost as large as a football field. With Voyager 1 and 2 transmitting with only 23 watts from 12 billion miles away, detecting their feeble signals pushes the Network to its limits.


It was very gratifying to see the epitome of “rocket science” — the best of the best that human ingenuity can achieve.


Best Regards,
September 23, 2013

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