Saturday’s launch of the newest and biggest Mars rover had special meaning for some Santa Clarita Valley residents who built and designed it, and now are responsible for flying the spacecraft to the red planet and ultimately landing it there.
“It’s been a great day. The launch went very, very well, and the spacecraft looks like it’s working very well in flight,” said Sand Canyon resident Richard Cook, deputy project manager on NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission.
While Cook’s boss, Pete Theisinger, was at the Florida launchpad for the 7:02 a.m. PST liftoff of the Atlas V 541 booster vehicle that carried MSL – aka the Curiosity rover – into space, Cook stayed back at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and took over flight operations when the orbiter separated from its upper-stage Centaur rocket a little over 44 minutes into launch.
Separation was quite a spectacle as images beamed back to JPL from an onboard camera.
“They had some really cool camera angles for this mission,” said SCV resident Robert Denise, a member of the flight software team. “I was particularly impressed by the camera on the Centaur that was looking at the solar arrays on the spacecraft at (the time of) spacecraft separation. That was a really cool image.”
“A picture is worth 1,000 words – or 1,000 bits of data,” Cook corrected himself. “We’ll get more pictures once we get to the surface.”
That happens next Aug. 5 at about 10:30 p.m. PST, Cook said.
Figuring out how to get the spacecraft to Mars has been the responsibility of some other JPL engineers from Santa Clarita who designed the navigation software.
“I’m very excited about today’s launch of MSL. It’s the first mission to fly entirely using the MONTE navigation software system,” said SCV resident Scott Evans, who leads the team that designed MONTE – Mission analysis, Operations and Navigational Toolkit Environment.
Chief architect of this “next generation” navigation system software is SCV resident Ted Drain – half of a husband-and-wife JPL team with wife Tracy, who’s assigned to the Juno mission to Jupiter.
Back to Mars. Cook will be looking to reprise the successful role he played as Theisinger’s No. 2 on the 2004 Mars Exploration Rover mission. The twin NASA/JPL rovers Spirit and Opportunity were supposed to last 90 days and instead – well, Opportunity is still tooling around the planet surface, sending back data in its fruitful search for past signs of water.
What makes MSL different is that it goes beyond the search for water. It will look for signs of past life on Mars.
The microbial kind. Not little green men.
“We kind of believe that water did exist on Mars in the past, and that’s a good sign,” Cook said. “But to really go look for organic material and for chemical signs that life existed is the purpose of this mission.”
Cook’s day wasn’t over at launch.
“We have a little bit more to do to get the spacecraft to into its quiescent mode,” he said. “We’ve got to send some commands today and some more tomorrow. On the way there, we have to do some little course corrections to make sure we’re lined up right for Mars.”
That’s not a dig at Evans and his navigation team. You never shoot a spacecraft straight at a planetary body.
“If we shot it straight at Mars – or even better, where Mars will be in eight months – we’d miss, because the Sun curves all trajectories,” Evans said.
“What we actually do is put MSL into an orbit around the Sun that happens to intersect Mars’ orbit at the appropriate time,” he said. “Right now, MSL is really another planet on a collision course with Mars. As we get closer, we’ll get the go-ahead to target the atmospheric entry point that drops us into Gale Crater. Various TCMs (trajectory correction maneuvers) will allow us to change course throughout the flight.”
In other words: There is no vacation for the SCV’s rocket men as their spacecraft embarks on its 352-million-mile journey to that distant light in the sky.