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Watch The Mars Rover Curiosity Landing, From San Diego

August 2, 2012 12:59 p.m.


Lisa Will, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at San Diego City College and Reuben H Fleet resident astronomer.

Jerry Hilburn, is a NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab Solar System Ambassador since 2005, Hilburn is an active member in the San Diego Astronomy Association.

Mike Ravine, Ph.D., is advanced projects manager for, Malin Space Science Systems, the San Diego company responsible for designing and operating the four cameras on the Mars Rover Curiosity.

Related Story: Rover Curiosity To Land On Mars Sunday


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: People have learned to hold their breath when unmanned spacecrafts attempt to land on Mars. Several missions have experienced major problems or even ended in failure in the first few minutes on the red planet. Now, San Diegans can collectively hold their breaths this Sunday night during a special Mars rover landing event at the Ruben H. Fleet science center. A live feed from NASA will be shown as the rover named curiosity touches down on Mars. Doctor Lisa Will is associate professor of physics and astronomy at San Diego City College. Welcome to the program.

WILL: Thanks very much.

CAVANAUGH: Jerry Hilburn is a NASA jet propulsion systems ambassador since 2005 and an active member in the San Diego astronomy association. Welcome.

HILBURN: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Why is the Ruben H. Fleet Science center hosting this event?

WILL: The public is generally fascinated by astronomical events, and previous Mars missions have gained a lot of attraction from the public. The rover's Opportunity and Spirit, when they lonneded, they got some of the largest website hits in the history of the Internet up to that point. So we decided for this landing, we would carry the NASA feed live in the planetarium and have special programming so people could experience the excitement all together.

CAVANAUGH: Jerry, give us a little background on the rover Curiosity. It's the first rover to land on Mars since 2004.

HILBURN: Yes it is.

CAVANAUGH: What's the mission?

HILBURN: Its mission is to characterize the surface of the planet eventually for humans to live on it.

CAVANAUGH: You're kidding me! I didn't know that!

HILBURN: Well, it has four objectives. But the idea is that it stays powered fully for a full martian year which is two earth years, and during that time, its instruments are continuously collecting information about the radiation that's on the surface, the geological makeup of the area that it traverses, whether or not there's water near the service. Of the kinds of things you'd need to know if you were going to put a human on the planet.

CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. Now, I know scientists have found molecular evident of water on Mars. Will curiosity be looking for more of those ingredients of life?

HILBURN: Yes it will. It contains a various of instruments to detect water, the weather conditions on the planet 24 hours a day, and the most interesting device is a laser that can fire at objects up to 25 feet away and then study the gas that comes off of the heated up elements to determine what their makeup is.

CAVANAUGH: For a minute I thought it was like a weapon against martians!


HILBURN: It's pretty cool stuff.


CAVANAUGH: Okay, I feel better now. How big is this rover, doctor?

WILL: This rover is about five times heavier and twice as big as the previous rovers we've sent. It's about the size of a mini-cooper. It has the capability to range further than the previous rovers did. So it should be able to move several miles over the planned mission. So we should be able to get samples from a greater variety of regions.

CAVANAUGH: Now it lands on Sunday. When did it take off from Mars?

HILBURN: Last November we launched it.

CAVANAUGH: That long ago, okay. How many rovers there are on Mars? We've been accepting devices up there for a long time.

HILBURN: This'll be the fourth that's made it.


HILBURN: Well, we hope it makes it.


CAVANAUGH: It's not the only -- we as the United States are not the only country sending spacecraft to Mars, are we?

HILBURN: No, Europe sends craft, and Russia sends craft.

CAVANAUGH: The fleet will be screening short films before the landing. What are some of the dangers?

WILL: Is this probably the most ambitious landing or decent attempt. Because of the increased mass of the rover Tuesday, it's harder to land. Mars does have an atmosphere. It's very thin though, so you don't get enough draft from a parachute to slow down the rover enough. So they're going to be deploying something they're referring to as a space crane that has rockets on it that will act as a crane to lower the rover more gently to the ground. And so it is really ambitious. I look forward to seeing how it works. And NASA has released a video called the seven minutes of terror.


WILL: This is well worthwhile to watch, detailing how this decent will occur.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you are going to be telling people where on Mars actually this is going to land; isn't that right

WILL: Yes, we're going to be using the planetarium system at the fleet center to actually give people a tour of Mars. We'll look at previous landing sights and also this landing sight which is Gail crater. We have the ability to zoom in with good, high resolution video. So we'll be able to poke around.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us the history of the failed landing or almost failed landings on Mars.

HILBURN: Well, the most recent is the beagle mission. That was done by the European space agency. And it just disappeared after it made entry, and we didn't have any information about it. But recently I believe it was the Mars odyssey found some images that they believe shows the impact point inside of a canyon where it was a little bit offcourse when it tried to land.

CAVANAUGH: I guess this is a silly question because it is a long, long way away. But what is the difficulty that space scientists have been having in having successful landings on Mars

HILBURN: Sometimes it's bad math. The United States had a craft where we sent it, and there was a problem in the science between two teams using metric versus the English system.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I read about that.

HILBURN: Sometimes it's just bad luck. But Mars is a difficult place to land at primarily due to the atmosphere being very thin, the difficulties you have in predicting exactly where something is going to land unless it's in a powered decent. Up till now, we haven't had a craft that we've sent with a powered decent at the end of its landing. This will be the first.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about the seven minutes of terror you were talking about. Is this the kind of thing where NASA is going to be out of communication with the rover? So people are basically going to be sitting there white-knuckled hoping they get some contact with this vehicle?

WILL: Yes. What's going to happen during the seven minutes of terror is that's when the spacecraft itself is coming through the atmosphere. Its heat shield will be up, and it'll be experiencing that atmospheric friction, that will make it out of touch. And it'll take seven minutes from when it reaches the top of the atmosphere to when it lands. We will be out of touch with the spacecraft during that time. And once it land, it'll make contact with one of NASA's satellites currently in orbit around Mars. And that will send a signal back to us of whether or not it had been a successful landing within just a few minutes. And the craft is expected to land at 10:31 Pacific time on Sunday night. With with a degree of error, that's plus or minus a minute. So we should know very quickly after 10:30 whether the mission was a success.

CAVANAUGH: Wasn't there a craft that they sent to Mars that they couldn't establish contact with right away but they eventually were able to?

HILBURN: I believe that was one of the early orbital missions.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right.

HILBURN: A satellite. We have three up there right now that are active. And their primary mission is to take photography and send that back. And then the Mars reconnaissance had a mission on its way there, but it worked fine as well.

CAVANAUGH: Joining me is Mike Ravine. He's with the San Diego company responsible for designing and operation four cameras on the Curiosity. Welcome.

RAVINE: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: I understand that 15 people from your company will be at the jet propulsion laboratory for the first 90 days of this operation remotely operation these cameras.

RAVINE: We just hired a new guy, got introduced to him yesterday in the hallway, actually.

CAVANAUGH: So maybe it's 16!


RAVINE: There's a lot of scientist, a number of instruments, and they all have to argue with each other to decide what we're going to do on any given day. Then we have to built sequences to run our cameras. Those get uploaded to the rover, the rover executes them, it generates data, and we have to take that data apart and make it into pictures. Then the science team looks at it, says did we do what we wanted to do? And what do we do tomorrow?

CAVANAUGH: I see. So there is no game plan going in? You have to see what the cameras are looking at and then develop the software?

RAVINE: There is very much a game plan. We went through operational readiness tests where we had to go up there and essentially pretend we were really landing and doing everything. I think everybody will find it slightly familiar having gone through it before. But obviously that's without having seen what the real surface looks like at Gail crater. So we're going there because we hope we learn new and different things. So there's going to have to be a certain amount of adaptability.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Now, there are four cameras that you've designed. What are they for? One of them is on the bottom of the rover, and it takes pictures as we come in to land. So we'll get a little bit of after the fact video of the seven minutes of terror. One of the cameras is on the end of the robotic arm. So the arm can place it an inch or less away from rocks. And it's a macrolens camera to take pictures to study the grains of rock to, see whether they're laid down by wind or oceans. And then finally we have two cameras on the remote sensing mast, and they're called mast cam. They're going to be the workhorses for science imaging on the spacecraft because they'll be taking mosaics to get the lay of the land, what we're going to do, what rocks we're going to study.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the environmental conditions these cameras are going to have to survive and operate in.

RAVINE: That was one of the challenges because the cameras, a lot of the electronics in the rover are inside where they're kept reasonably warm. But the cameras can't be inside because we couldn't be taking pictures of anything. So they have to be outside. So they're outside during the day, which means they're outside at night. That means it gets really cold, and that happens every day. We had to build a prototype and put it in a chamber here at our place in San Diego and cycle it down to minus 135 Celsius over 2,000 times to show that all the little parts weren't going to pop off the circuit boards from the temperature cycling.

CAVANAUGH: You're not kidding when you say it's really cold!


RAVINE: It's really, really cold. 135 degrees Celsius, that's more than 200 Fahrenheit? I have to do the math, but yeah, very cold.

CAVANAUGH: How warm does it ever get there?

RAVINE: When it gets really hot, it'll get above freezing. But that's kind of like Mars, what corresponds to the middle of the Sahara in an endless summer. Maybe it can get up to room temperature if it's a really, really hot day.

CAVANAUGH: And what's the lag time between when the cameras on the rover Curiosity take the pictures and then we can see them here on earth?

RAVINE: Well, that depends. It takes 20 minutes or so depending on where Mars is for the signal to get back. But the rover sends most of its data through one of those relays on the orbiters we have there. So it takes pictures, then it starts the pictures internally, and then one of these orbiters flies over Trelays them up to it, and then it relays it to the ground. So it's a lot more like e-mail than it is like live TV. It'll eventually get to the ground, but on one day maybe the connection wasn't good it, so it walked away till the next day to get a picture.

CAVANAUGH: So it's about a day?

RAVINE: Yeah, yeah. Typically, yeah. The whole planning cycle goes on a daily basis. On one day we're building sequences that go up, they execute, and the data comes back. So pretty much a day or more between when we take and see the picture.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for speaking with us, and good luck with the cameras.

RAVINE: We'll take all the good luck we can get! Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: What will members of the audience at the science center be able to see during this event? Will you be seeing NASA mission control? Anything from the actual landing?

WILL: We will be linked into the NASA feed which will be showing the scientists in mission control, and they'll be updating us as to the status of the spacecraft. Jerry and I will both be giving presentations about Mars itself, and the Curiosity lander. And we'll be doing the NASA feed starting at 8:15. So all of the videos and interviews they're doing with the scientists will be shown at the center.

CAVANAUGH: And you'll be able to see that control room explode in happiness when that seven minutes of terror is over, right?

WILL: We're definitely hoping for exploding in happiness, yes.

HILBURN: No tears!


CAVANAUGH: How long is the mission supposed to last?

HILBURN: One martian year, which is two earth years.


HILBURN: And then if it's still operation correctly, and everything is good, the government could allow it to go further. We could get more funding. But the funding period is for the initial period of one martian year.

CAVANAUGH: Just to whereat things up, all of us have heard some talk about a manned mission to Mars. That seems to explode into the headlines, then it disappears. Are there any plans in the works for that?

HILBURN: NASA has planning for a mission in 2020. And just about two weeks ago, they released the menu they plan to send for the astronauts that'll be flying there.

CAVANAUGH: You mean the actual things they'll eat?

HILBURN: The foods, yes. It's a long cycle. It takes ten years of planning, and six years to build all the equipment. There's a lot of testing that has to occur. The mission is six months there, 18 months on the ground, six months back.

CAVANAUGH: At least their priorities are right. Food first, right?


CAVANAUGH: The event is this Sunday, and it starts at 8:00. Thank you both very much.

HILBURN: Thank you.

WILL: Thank you very much.