More on Mars Rovers
CHAPTER 42 Was Mars Habitable?
Last month, I highlighted Discover magazine's selection of its top story of 2013 as the Mars rover Curiosity finding evidence that life could have existed on Mars in the distant past. I still remember watching on TV the joyful reactions of some of the workers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) when Curiosity made its monumental landing on Mars' surface back in 2012. For those who may not know, JPL is a federally funded research and development laboratory managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology. I hadn't realized that JPL has a history going back to the 1930s,when a group was formed at Caltech to explore the use of rocketry. Caltech's Theodore von Karman was a key player in those early days, eventually arranging for the U.S. Army to take over JPL under Caltech's management. In the 1950s, with the formation of NASA, JPL became NASA's primary planetary spacecraft center, still under the management of Caltech.
A brief digression - back in the 1965, my family moved to the house we've lived in ever since. Joe and Fran Gillis were wonderful next door neighbors and my wife and I attended the wedding of their daughter Barbara to a fine young man, William Weber. After undergraduate and graduate work at Cornell, Bill got his PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California, where our granddaughter recently got her master's degree in music composition. Bill has spent the past 46 years at JPL, where he became Director for Engineering and Science for 6 years and then Director for the Interplanetary Network Directorate for 7 years. He is currently a Special Assistant to the Director of JPL and will be retiring in June. The Interplanetary Network Directorate includes JPL's Deep Space Network, a network of antennas on three different continents that comprise the world's largest and most sensitive scientific telecommunications system.
In Christmas cards and rare occasions when Bill and Barbara have visited here in New Jersey, I've expressed my admiration for JPL's accomplishments in their Mars rover and other missions. Recently, I received a letter from Barbara enclosing an article she wrote in October 2012 for the Caltech Women's Club bulletin. The article, titled "Driving Curiosity", was about her neighbor, Amy Culver, a systems engineer at JPL, and her activities during the first few months after Curiosity landed on Mars. During that time, Amy worked four-day, 10 hour-a-day shifts with three days off. This may not sound like a particularly stressful work situation but consider the fact that she and the other teams of workers had to work on Mars time. On Mars, a day is almost 40 minutes longer than on Earth. Amy's job was to review the photos taken by Curiosity the previous day and then meet with the mineralogy, environmental studies, and geology teams to decide on what was next for the intrepid rover. You can imagine that each team would have its own wishes and Amy would have to tell them what was possible in negotiating the next day's operations. She would then work with another lead scientist to devise the code to accomplish those operations.
You might think that, because Curiosity could only take data on Mars time and was limited to operating during sunlight hours for powering its solar cells, Amy would only have to adjust her work schedule by 40 minutes a day. However, Curiosity does not beam its data back to earth directly. It sends the data to two of NASA's spacecraft orbiting Mars, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Odyssey. These spacecraft then beam their data back to the Deep Space Network antennae back on Earth. Apparently, the constraints in processing and transmission of the data complicate things by more than just 40 minutes. As a result, Amy's four-day shifts went like this: report for work on day one at 10 AM, the second day at 7 AM, the third day at 5 AM and the fourth day at 2 AM! Then three days off. Driving Curiosity is not for sissies! Fortunately for Amy, I gather that her schedule these days is less hectic.
Curiosity was not the only rover making news. Not to be outdone in the search for evidence that life could have been possible on Mars in the far distant past, the rover Opportunity is still plugging away and last month on January 25 celebrated its 10th anniversary on Mars. Appropriately, in the January 24 issue of Science, R. E. Arvidson and a slew of authors reported that Opportunity had found an ancient clay-forming environment in rocks at Endeavor Crater. These rocks were much older than those found earlier by Opportunity. Those rocks were formed in a more acidic, saline kind of environment that was not hospitable to life. The more recently discovered rocks, however, were from an era that appears to have been more favorable to hosting some sort of microorganisms. So, both Opportunity and Curiosity, on widely separated areas on Mars, show evidence that life could have been possible. Who knows? If life did indeed exist there, and pieces of Mars got knocked off and made their way to Earth, as has happened, it's possible we all share ancestry with microbes on the Red planet.
It's truly impressive that Opportunity, originally slated for a mission expected to last a few months, is still moving around and doing its thing ten years later! Equally impressive to me, as a scientist, is the incredible amount of patience that the workers at JPL and others associated with the space missions must show. After spending years designing and putting together the spacecraft and its contents for a mission, they then have to wait months or years to find out if they've been successful. This patience is being demonstrated now by workers at the European Space Agency, who just woke up their Rosetta spacecraft after placing it in hibernation for almost three years. Rosetta, hopefully, will actually land on a comet later this year if all goes well.
In thinking of my own career at Bell Labs, I worked mainly in two different areas, lithium batteries and semiconductors, which included light-emitting diodes. The LED work required no patience whatsoever. We would grow a layer of gallium phosphide on a wafer to form a p-n junction, stick a couple of electrodes on the sample and see if we saw light, hopefully, bright light. The whole process took less than a day, even just a few hours. On the other hand, a major goal of the battery work was to achieve a rechargeable battery capable of many hundreds of cycles. The more successful we were, the longer it took to determine success, months if we made a good battery. I'm not sure I would have had the patience to wait years to see whether an experiment worked or not.
Finally, I had planned to continue this column with some more scientific stuff but last month I was watching my favorite TV show, "Sunday Morning", with Charles Osgood, and two segments caught my attention. One was on the "Sound of Music" and the true history of the von Trapp family. The other was on Danny Kaye and featured an interview with his daughter. This segments brought back memories of seeing Mary Martin in the original Broadway play and of actually meeting Maria von Trapp many years ago when my wife and I had dinner at the von Trapp lodge in Vermont. I had also seen Danny Kaye, one of my favorite actor/comedians, on two occasions. I still remember most his very quiet, beautiful rendition of the song "Ball and the Jack".
I don't know if the movie "American Hustle" was mentioned on the program but it came to mind that I had met a key figure in the Abscam scandal that appears to have prompted the movie. Before the Abscam affair made headlines, I was watching a Fourth of July parade in Plainfield, New Jersey and Senator Harrison "Pete" Williams was in one of the lead cars in the parade. He came over to watch the rest of the parade and sat down beside me. He asked my name and said, "I know your father!" I knew this to be untrue, my father having lived in Pennsylvania and questioned the good senator. It turned out that he knew a Portrum, not a Bortrum. (Longtime readers will know that Bortrum is a nom de plume but my real name does have a "b" in it and Williams' error involved replacing that with a "p".) Williams later was convicted in the Abscam case and served time in prison.
These recollections reminded me of other, more reputable public figures I have been close to, physically, not socially! I was within a few feet of President Dwight Eisenhower as he and Mamie rode by in an open car on their way to the airport after a campaign speech in Cleveland, where I was visiting my former landlady. I had also seen Ike earlier when he gave the commencement address at Penn State when my brother received his PhD from that university, where Eisenhower's brother Milton was president at the time. My wife and I were sitting directly under President Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn at the Metropolitan Opera one night. We did step out and wave to them at intermission. My wife was standing a few feet from Richard Nixon when he was riding by on our street in Plainfield during one of his campaigns. She also had a personal encounter with President John Kennedy, who said "Hello" to her as he exited church in Hyannis. She froze and did not respond! This was just a couple of months before his assassination. Oh, I did almost bump into a British politician, Anthony Eden, walking by him on my way into the UN in New York, where I was having lunch as part of some group to which my wife belonged. This was before he became Prime Minister.
Well, enough of this blatant name dropping. To my mind, the most important names dropped in this column are Bill Weber, Amy Culver and their unnamed colleagues at JPL who are literally expanding humanity's reach to Mars and other worlds in our solar system. And with Voyager now officially beyond our solar system, who knows where it might be in thousands or millions of years?
Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about March 1, 2014.
Allen F. Bortrum