Figure 1. Comet Sliding Sprng as seen by the NEOWISE space telescope. (C) NASA
All images in this article are courtesy NASA and JPL, and are in the public domain.

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NASA/JPL Comet Social and Press Conference

October 17, 2014

If you want to get right to the video presentation, here it is. http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov/news/comet-nasa-social

Introduction

On Sunday, October 19, 2014, comet Siding Spring will pass closer to Mars than any comet has passed to any planet in recorded history, except for comet Shoemaker-Levy, which struck Jupiter. Around November 15, the ESA - Rosetta probe's lander Philae, will land on Comet 56P-CG. These are big events for solar system exploraion, and especially for our understanding of comets.

NASA held a "Social" event on Monday, October 13, at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, next to Pasadena, California. The invitation to apply for press credentials to this even went out on Reddit about a month ago, and on Twitter, Facebook, and several other social media, at the same time. Seating was limited, as the briefing was held in JPL's Mission Control Room. I was lucky to be one of the 2 Redditors accepted to the conference. Emily Lacdawalla, Bill Nye's number 2 person at The Planetary Society, sat in (I believe) the same chair Bobak Ferdowsi sat in, during the landing of Curiosity.

Photo of Emily L.
Figure 1. Photo of the audience in NASA mission control (C) NASA/JPL

Also listed as an accepted registrant was Emma Watson, but sadly, she did not show up. I wonder how serious she is about her side-career in journalism?

There were other Redditors there. I wonder why no one has written it up before? There was

The tour of JPL
ion drives
Mars Yard and the test rovers
InSIGHT, the next mission to Mars, under construction
Spacecraft Assembly Facility, and SMAP spacecraft
Group photo
Lunch
NASA TV Broadcast
Don Yeomans, Manager, NEO Program
Rich Zurek, Chief Scientists Mars Program, JPL
Chad Edwards, Chief Telecommunications engineer, Mars Exploration Program, JPL
Rob Lock, Orbiter Studies Lead, JPL
Jeff Plaut Mars Odyssey Project Scientist
Sarah Milkovich, MRO HiRISE Scientist
Rich Zurek, MAVEN Scientist
Matt Golombeck, MER Project Scientist
Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist
Art Chmielewski, Rosetta
Claudia Alexander, Rosetta
Sam Gulkins, MIRO on Rosetta PI
Paul Weissman, Rosetta interdisciplinary scientist

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Section 1: The Tour

Before the press conference, JPL gave us a tour of the facilities, similar to the NASA Open House, the weekend before. The Open House had recoer attendance, about 45,000 people total. It was jam-packed. Over 20,000 on Saturday, and over 25,000 on Sunday. I've been there a couple of times before, and the attenadce was about 15,000, ~7,000 on Saturday and 8,000 on Sunday.

First item on the tour was a visit to the ion engine testing facility. I've written about this before, but never visited. Ion engines permit much greater fuel efficiency, so a small spacecraft can do a lot more. During the questions and answers, a JPL scientist, possibly John Brophy, mentioned that this ion engine could be used for asteroid retreival, or for a Phobos/Deimos sample return mission. Much larger ion engines are a goal, to permit manned expeditions to Mars and the outer planets. My photos did not turn out well, so here is a NASA file photo. Ion Engine
Figure 2. Ion enging at the JPL test facility. This engine has been running for years. (C) NASA/JPL

Kristina Larson of the Dawn 
Mission Software Team
Figure 3. Kristina Larson of the Dawn Mission Software Team (C) NASA/JPL

The tour was mostly interviews with engineers from various space missions. This is Kristina Larson of the Dawn Mission Software Team, at the open house the day before. I did not take pictures of the engineers during the tour, but this picture is representative. Kristina talked about driving the Dawn spacecraft, double checking commands using a copy of the spacecraft before they are sent to Dawn, and she also answered questions about the reaction wheel failure last year, and how they came up with software fixes that will allow Dawn to complete its mission.

Opportunity full scale model
Figure 4. Opportunity full scale model, at the Open House Sunday. (C) NASA/JPL

Curiosity/2020 Mars rover
Figure 5. Curiosity full scale model, in its garage, during the tour. Most of this model will probably be used to build the 2020 Mars rover. This rover is also used for software testing. (C) NASA/JPL

Curiosity test vehicle
Figure 6. Curiosity skeleton in the Mars Yard. This stripped down copy of Curiosity weighs the same on Earth, as Curiosity does on Mars. It is used for driving tests. (C) NASA/JPL

Curiosity mast cam
Figure 7. Curiosity's mast, with the MastCams (mast cameras), and the ChemCam. The ChemCam includes a high powered telescope, and there will be an attempt to photograph comet Siding Spring, nucleus with the ChemCam, on Sunday. (C) NASA/JPL

Below is the Insight Mars lander, under construction. You may notice its resemblance to the Phoenix lander from a few years ago. That is because JPL saves a lot of money on space probes by recycling old parts and chassis. At the moment they are testing the arm, which will carefully place the sizemometer, the orange object in the foreground, on the surface.

Phoenix landed near the (North?) pole, and looked for water. Insight will land near the equator, and do geology and weather. Both are very cheap missions compared to rovers. NASA does what it can, with the money it gets. There is an advantage to doing sizemometry with a lander. A rover rolling around on rocks near by, would interfere with readings of distant Earthquakes. Mars is geologically active, and Insight will gather plenty of earthquake data over its life.

Insight Mars Lander
Figure 8. The Insight Mars Lander is under construction. I'm not sure if this is a model with some of the real pieces that will go to Mars, or the actual spacecraft, partially constructed. The orange and white objects in the foreground are French-built seizmometers, with and without protective sun shields. One of them will go to Mars. (C) NASA/JPL

SMAP spacecraft
Figure 9. The SMAP spacecraft in the Vehicle Assembly Building, about to be shipped out for launch. (C) NASA/JPL

The last item on the tour was a visit to the Vehicle Assembly Building. This is the building where the Voyagers, Vikings, and the Gallileo probe to Jupiter were built. The SMAP spacecraft is an Eartyh orbiter, but it is still a rare treat to see a spacecraft ready for shipping, folded up and ready to be placed on top of a rocket, and surrounded by a fairing.

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Section 2: The Presentation

After lunch, we were led back to Mission control, for the televised presentation and press conference. Here is the televised conference, a bit edited. There I am, in the front row. I'm the ugly one.

http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov/news/comet-nasa-social

After the cameras went off, I cornered Dr. Weissman from Rosetta, and asked about the electrical conductivity of the surface of the comet. My reasoning was that grapite is dark, so could graphite be present? It turns out that the Philae lander will measure the electrical conductivity directly, by sticking wires into the comet and measuring resistance.

It also turned out that Dr. Weissman had also made this measurement indirectly with the instruments on Rosetta he is responsible for. His 500 micron and 1500 micron cameras indicate the surface has about the conductivity of granite, based on the penetration depth of the microwaves. So, no graphite. If there was graphite or another conductor like iron present on the surface, the images would be much more hard edged.

Here are some photos from Rosetta to finish.


Figure 10. An arty shot of comet CG. (C) ESA/NASA/JPL

Figure 11. Comet CG. (C) NASA/JPL

Figure 12. Comet CG. (C) NASA/JPL
By F. E. Harris

References

1. "JPL to Host 'NASA Social' Highlighting Comets," October 13, 2014
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4284 , http://mars.nasa.gov/comets/sidingspring/
2. "Washington Press Briefing," October 9, 2014
http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/october/nasa-holds-media-briefing-to-discuss-comet-flyby-of-mars-observations/
Off TopicFunny Pictures from Orbit

© 2011 F. E. Harris for Hypertek Publications. All Rights Reserved.