Wednesday, September 28, 2011

SOWG Chair Quote of the… forever

This morning at SOWG, someone requested a Pancam 13F of a target near Opportunity's current position at Chester Lake. It originally was a minimal-filter picture, but we had bits to spare tosol. After mentioning the 13F, someone said that, hell, why not make it a 15-filter? A 16-filter? Keep on bumping it up! (Though those extra filters won't do any good, seeing as though there are only 13 anyways. It's a joke. Get it? Get it? Get it?)

"Yeah, keep bumping it up. Turn it up to 11," said our SOWG chair. It was really sneaky the way she snuck it in there — under the radar so nobody really noticed. 

This plucked my heart strings, and I had to make tosol's album of the day "This Is Spinal Tap." 

The sustain, just listen to it.


Ironically, we're currently integrating away with the Mossbauer, which can't do anything at 11. It's more like a faint 0.2.


(More posts coming, I swear!)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Day In the Life, bSols 2719-2721: Secret Woids and 2x4s

(Alternate title: Newton's 7th Law: Fridays can stink)
It's Friday, 8:22am. Scott (not of the Maxwell type), today's mission manager, comes strolling in for the engineering tagup meeting at 8:30.

"COFFEE TIME," he announces.

I'm excited. Giddy, almost. Right up there on the list of "things I need to prevent a murderous rampage" is coffee. And Scott brought some.

Such is Scott's way of the Friday tactical shift — running down to the JPL cafeteria in building 167 just minutes before the start of the day and getting a big to-go box of coffee for the team. Sometimes, he also comes brings a couple boxes of donuts. With a healthy (sic) supply of things to raise our collective blood sugar and caffeine levels, we're ready to start. (It's worth mentioning that on the rare occasion that John Callas, MER Project Manager, is on shift as Mission Manager, he's the guy to bring in the those delectable high-GI goodies, and he usually brings really good ones. He's always careful — in a very precise, calculating way — to keep his team happy.)


Fridays can be rough. They're almost always 3-sol planning days, with the exception of transitioning from Restricted to Nominal planning cycles, when we might get lucky and only have to plan two sols. With three sols, the SOWG wants to pack in a ton of science, and the engineering team just has to keep up: "Ok, to summarize… a 3-hour drive, a Pancam twilight — do we need filter wheel heating? — an APXS integration on the second sol, a Navcam 360, a couple of Pancam Taus — wait, Ecam PUL wants a Navcam Tau? Ok, throw it in — and some engineering requests on the third sol. Right. Wait, did we forget the turn for comm  after the drive? I need another donut." 

I have a decent habit of jotting it all down in a notebook. On Fridays, the number of scribbles and cross-outs is wondrously out of control. I haven't yet learned to just wait until the end of the SOWG meeting to write it down. It's almost more fun to watch the plan evolve on paper.

One Friday in particular from a few months ago burns deeply in my memory. It was a late start as it were, as we were shifting into the restricted sol planning phase and had had a slew of pretty nasty Slide planning offsets earlier in the week. Squyres was SOWG Chair that day and the plan was fairly benign, but despite the good moods all around, things just went plain wrong. Like, everywhere. Catastrophic disasters at every turn. Weird SEQGEN errors, integration mishaps, rehashing of plans. Ick. Imagine the smoothest, most pain-free, quickest 3-sol planning day. Then imagine the exact opposite of that. It was 8pm Pacific time by the time we finished — oh, right, 11pm at Cornell where Squyres and Pancam John reside — and everyone was exhausted

Something was watching over us, getting a nice laugh out of the whole thing. But the story gets better.

There's a point in our process right before the last walkthrough where the various utility scripts that I am using make me stop and wait for a secret password, a password only available once the entire Walkthrough has been completed, and only available on the TUL's walkthrough screen; if the products or screen are ever refreshed, the word changes. You can't beat this system. You can't hack your way around this system. You can't cheat this system. It always stops you in your tracks.

It's called the "Secret Woid" ("Secret Word"), but I think a more honest title for it is, "The thing that keeps me from being awesome." 

After the walkthrough is over, I have my key to the end of the day, and boom, I'm off to the races again to put the finishing touches on that day's bundle(s). Since it's just random word from some mystery dictionary, some of these words can be a little racy, some a little funny, some a little… scary. You know, a little… foreboding. The MER tactical team is extremely superstitious with respect to the Secret Woid. It follows, then, that if we get a Secret Woid that gives us the heebie-jeebies, we get wary. Context is everything.

For each sol, there's a new Secret Woid. The first one for this already long day popped up after the review of the first sol:

Fans of matrices, you'll get that one. So far, so good. Superstition kept at bay.

The second one popped up:

[expletive deleted]. I had heard of a time in past years when the Secret Woid was "anomaly" — instilling an equally chilling sense of fear in the team. Did we just one-up them? I think so.

Then, the third one:


Upon seeing this, we were officially riding the thin line between hysterical laughter and a Led Zeppelin-esque, paranoia-induced fit of destruction. I didn't have the hydration left in my body to cry. The TUL on duty took a screenshot ("pics or it didn't happen," I said) and emailed it out, subject line:


Oh, right, the proverbial cherry on top: it was a Friday the 13th. The irony, in the words of Stephen Davis, were murderous.

(For what it's worth, the plan went off without a hitch, superstition be damned. Snip, snap, done.)


Fast forward to a few days ago, when we planned sols 2719-2721. This day had a different kind of bad flavor to it: I woke up feeling like I'd been hit in the face with a 2x4, my head about to explode from pent up allergy-wrought snot. I wasn't sick, just allergic to outside things. Maybe it was the 3-mile run through Pasadena's unusually cool weather that did it. (I'm one of those barefoot runners. Mike the Mission Manager and I occasionally show up to our shifts in these awesome bad boys, so be like us and get yourself a pair. All the cool MER kids are doing it.)

Today's TUL, Tony "Tony the TUL" the TUL*, beat us all to the sequencing room that morning. He knew that today was a RAT day (and a special one at that — we're making a RAT hole on Salisbury 1, not just brushing) and knew that we hadn't used any RAT grind sequences for the better part of a year. The last time was at Luiz de Torres on the lip of the Santa Maria crater. Today had the potential to go long.

Of course, we have our guidelines for how long a day can go. The uplink window for this set of sols didn't start until sometime the next day, but that doesn't mean we're allowed to take that long to make the plan. For three-sol plans like today, our limit is on the order of half a day, putting our "drop dead" time somewhere in the vicinity of 8pm Pacific. That is, if we don't have the sequence bundles built by then, we drop everything and walk away, letting the runout from sol 2718 take us through the weekend. I am yet to experience such a situation, though I've come close. I can't imagine the disappointment of working close to 12 hours and then having to simply throw it in the trash simply because Mars is unforgiving.

But, really, will the plan go long? Sure, we haven't used the RAT in a while, and sure, it's a three-sol plan, but… Although I don't say it, I start profiling my team for today. Lucky for us, it's a bunch of all-stars. Well, they're all all-stars, but some are more experienced with certain kinds of rover activities. By way of example, Joseph was RP1 today. He's the RP you want when you've got RAT holes to make. Although all RPs are capable of building and delivering the IDD sequences necessary to make a RAT hole, he is particularly keen on the nuances therein. Ashley's in the RP2 chair today, and she knows her RAT sequences just as well.

Wearing the Ecam hat is Justin. He got pulled in to do work on MSL a long time ago, which is an asset I hope they never let go for their sake. He is a MER Ecam legend. He hasn't been on shift for a long time because of his MSL commitments, but he shows up in the sequencing room just prior to the SOWG. "Justin!" the room erupts in unison. Although there are no Navcam images in today's plan, there are plenty of Hazcams and MIs — and remember that Ecam PUL is responsible for all Navcams, Ecams, and MIs. He's still got the touch.

Heading the science team is Ray Arvidson. He's been SOWG chair most of this week and therefore has the context of the current tactical situation ripe in his brain. A potential combo-breaker is when the SOWG chair switches to a new person right on a complex planning day. It almost never results in problems because the SOWG is great at communicating "handover plans," but you can imagine how things might get missed. But not today. No sir.

Things are looking up. Despite my head feeling more like a levee and less like a head, I'm confident in the day going well. And, indeed, it did. The plan is looking great after SOWG meeting, if the low number of revisions during the meeting is anything to go by. So, right, what did we plan? 

Well, first, I planned the TAP/SIE Album of the Day: "Don't Explain" by Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa. Broken-heart soldiers, beware, this one will wring you dry. Second, I queued up my "walkthrough song." That is, the song I listen to when I'm doing my Master sequence review. It's important to be totally in the zone when you're reviewing the Masters, especially when you've got a lot of sub-sequences to look at and especially when there are three sols in the plan. Today, it's more of an album: DJ Meshblorg's "Bassed God." Why? Because it's terrifying, and I like terrifying. It's also an hour long, more than enough time to do my dirty work and get ready for the walkthroughs with the team.

Besides the RAT activities, Pancam is taking a front seat today. Pancam has three major duties for this plan:

1) RAT hole imaging. 

2) SuperRes imaging of Endeavour. Tau, or atmospheric dustiness, has decreased this past week. Squyres put down a lien to get a super-resolution panorama of the entirety of Endeavour Crater, and it has taken the better part of a week to get it all done. Here's a nice composite of the result:

(Click to enlarge; courtesy Jan van Driel at UMSF)

3) Extraneous target imaging. We've got the Biscotasing and Halliday targets just in front of us, and there was a lien to get a nice shot of Solander Point to the South. 

After the RAT dug a hole, we got a nice collection of MIs:

(contrast stretched)

Our all-star team walked out of the room with a couple hours to spare. Monday, I'm back on the horse with a similar cast of characters to take a nice hard look at the RAT hole — ground in the loop, you know — and see if we want to move on and continue north to get to some more Noachian.


Quotes of the day:

"I think I'd rather have that margarita now."
-Anonymous (well… team quote)

"[lonnnnnnnng sequence walkthrough]… and then we have a RAT hole."
-RP Joseph


*only words beginning in "t" allowed here

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hopping Fences!

Like a true multi-mission goon, I have made a made a move to the other side of the fence — the Mars Science Laboratory side of the fence! A job opening came along to help out the Cruise sequencing team, a team that is, incidentally, made up of almost all University of Colorado folks and almost all former MER folks. Should be a blast.

MSL now owns half of my working time for the near future. Fortunately, I was able to do some bartering: I get to keep most of my time half-time commitment to MER as a TAP/SIE. 

So don't worry — blog posts will keep coming! I won't be leaving MER if I can ever help it.

(Speaking of, here's a promise: "A Day In the Life" update coming later tonight!)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Aluminum makes a powerful statement

From Mike "Mike the Mission Manager" the Mission Manager's report:

The IDD activities on Sol 2713 will begin with imaging of the IDD cable guard with the Hazcam, Navcam, and Pancam.  This sequence will execute and data will be returned on 11 Sept. 2011.  These images are being captured in remembrance of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  The RAT cable gaurd is made of aluminum that was recovered from the remains of World Trade Center 1 and 2.  The cable guard is adorned with the flag of the United States of America.  While steel from the towers was repurposed in defense of the United States as part of the hull of the USS New York; this aluminum has been repurposed in the name of exploration sponsored by the United States to benefit all mankind.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Story and Context

(Had to go ixnay on the Juno-post-ay for now. There were fish of larger volumetric proportions to dip in hot oil this week.)

Every Wednesday, there's a placeholder in the SOWG (the team, not the meeting) schedule for something called the "End-of-Sol" (EOS). It comes from Prime Mission days, when the SOWG and sometimes the engineering teams would gather after a nice, long planning day and… talk about stuff. Stuff, meaning, "What's going on with the rover? What science are we collecting? Why?"

When I joined MER a year ago, the EOSs were few and far between. They've had a weekly placeholder for some time now (I'm not sure how long it's been this way) and it definitely hasn't had the pace of Prime Mission, or even the first few extended missions. We expect this: we weren't capturing a lot of interesting stuff along the way to Endeavour. An impact crater here, a meteorite there, but mostly dusty dunes and cruise control. The LTP report would frequently say "No EOS Wednesday." When we hit Santa Maria in December of 2010, EOSs picked up in frequency, only to drop off again when we hit Earth-Mars conjunction in late January. 

Since we hit Cape York, EOSs are happening every week with strong consistency. Not only are there EOSs in the first place, but they are ripe with material. The organizer has to balance four or five extensive PowerPoint presentations. Fitting them in within some time allotment (an hour, say) is a challenge. CY is screaming results at the science team, and it's placing some unique demands on the engineering team. At last week's EOS, there were so many callers on the line listening in that the system started booting people — the meet-me lines can only so many callers, and we had apparently exceeded the limit without a sweat.

Two words that I've heard with such great reliably as to, as the kids say, "take it to the bank," are the following:

1) Story
2) Context

They are synonymous in their use here. Let me, in turn, propose two simple facts:

1) Geologists are storytellers. 
2) MER is a geology mission.

Conclusion: MER is about stories. Really cool, science, geology-y stories. 

Cape York was selected as the landfall point at Endeavour for the simple reason that, from the sky above, it appears to represent an entirely new geology compared to both what Opportunity and Spirit had seen thus far in their respective missions. The extensive remote sensing told the MER science teams that, hey, maybe there's an interesting story here, maybe this material is really Noachian and maybe it's hiding something wonderful, let's head there first.

By opening Cape York to our in situ instrument suite on Oppy, we've been able to collect a fantastic story so far. One example is the now-famous Tisdale 2, which contained a variety of elements that did not correlate to rocks we've already encountered:

Courtesy NASA/JPL/Cornell

The ratios of Zinc and Bromine in Tisdale 2 were much higher -- take careful note of that log scale on the y-axes. ("Everything is linear if plotted log-log with a fat magic marker."). According to the science team, this possibly tells us a story about some kind of water flow, which deposits only certain stuff, stuff that we can see and touch and virtually feel right now with a hunching piece of metal on wheels. Cool.

Once we decided we had poked and prodded Tisdale 2 enough, we wanted to move on to the Northeast. Our next target: The Noachian. The multiple drives took us past the Tisdales:

Through sol 2710, which just passed by, here's our map:

Courtesy NASA/JPL/OSU/Cornell/AU

Interestingly, per the drive plan proposed by RP Frank and the science team several hundred meters before we hit Cape York, we're pretty much right on track. We're on the hunt for the next part of the story, gaining our context along the way to placing that fat Mossbauer spectrometer thingy on a fat piece of Noachian. 

(Ahem... and then sit there forever while we curse whichever god made the concept of half lives. The bastard.)

On 2709, we came on a nice piece of exposed outcrop. This one was playing nice; unlike Tisdale 2, we had a variety of target locations that were unquestionably RAT-able and APXS-able, and unlike Tisdale 2, we didn't have to worry about running the IDD smack into the side of it. This outcrop is just another part of the Cape York context, which, in a larger meta-picture, tells us the story of Endeavour, which, in an even larger meta-story, gives us a piece of the history of Mars. Why a new target? Why not go right for the purported Noachian? Squyres had a great answer. Paraphrased:

The new target should be IDD'd... it looks bright and Noachian itself... Need to build a nice story here and relate it to the Tisdales... We think there might be a coating, so we'll have to choose a target carefully and at least APXS it... Consider RAT'ing it to get into its guts... 
It is something entirely new, or SOS ("Same Old Sulfates")? This is our first major Noachian target, so let's make it count.

Oh. It IS the Noachian!

Our 2709 drive placed Oppy just out of reach of the new outcrop. The SOWG selected a suite of options for possible final approaches:

Then we approached a final target: Chester Lake. The RPs nailed a bump drive to get us right in the IDD sweet spot:


Then, a curveball: We lost a sol due to the GRAIL launch slip. More specifically, we lost our ability to uplink a set of plans for sol 2712, so we're allowing the "runout science" sequence — a Pancam Tau, among other things — to execute. No problem. 2712 was part of a 3-sol plan, so sol 2713 is golden for us. As such, the team planned an IDD placement on Chesterlake. With it, the usual MI stacks and an APXS integration on targets called "Salisbury". 

Images from these will come down sometime this weekend. With that, more context. With that, more story. With that, a healthy amount of 



Quotes of the week:

"Why don't I have any shifts this week?"

"Also, why don't I have any shifts this week?"

"All in all, just another day in paradise."
-Scott Maxwell

Monday, September 5, 2011

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Day In the Life, bSols 2703-2705: It's not Christmas yet, so why they are making candy canes?

Because they damn well feel like it, really. Also, because science. Mostly science. Also candy canes. Also science.

Coming off my 4-day slew of shifts, this week I was able to catch my breath. On sol 2702 (Tuesday's planning day), we finished up a long IDD campaign of Tisdale 2 with an final APXS placement. The array of IDD victims gives you the idea that the SOWG was, indeed, trying to "tell the Tisdale tale" (Alliteration! Look at me! I'm an adult!):

The final APXS spot, one of the "Shaw" targets, was a real beauty:

There was some concern over the soil contaminating the APXS measurements, but out APXS PUL assured us: "Don't you worry, we got it."

Flash forward to today's shift in question, sols 2703 to 2705. (Aside: I keep typing "26-"… Every time the sol number rolls over another hundred, my brain refuses to accept such a reality.) Although it was a Wednesday, which even in transitioning from Nominal to Restricted are 2-sol plans at most, we had to pull out  a 3-sol plan. The holiday weekend was biting us, essentially nuking any shot at 2 or 3 more Nominal planning days. Boohoo.

But, just as I was relieved to get some MER off-time — you know, "To do real work," as I always say — so was the rest of the team. When you get these three-day weekends at the beginning of a Restricted planning cycle, you have back up a couple of days more than normal and plan 3 sols on two or three subsequent days to "launch" you past the holidays. (I always think of it as a slingshot.) You lunge forward a bit, get through a couple 2-sol days, lean back a bit, get through a couple 3-sol days, rinse and repeat for two or three weeks and it's back to the Nominal grindstone. We'll hit that again in mid-to-late September.

Oppy's flash volume will be thanking us. MI stacks are a huge flash burden, so with a couple weeks of a large Tisdale-2 campaign you can bet the flash available is running low. With three-sol plans, we're restricted to drive or IDD activities on a single sol so we can have ground in the loop before the next movement. Those other two sols are tactically made light on remote sensing observations — your Pancams, your Navcams, your APXS-Argons — so that our downlink relayed through Odyssey is much bigger than the data we're collecting those two sols. 

Now, we're back on the road again. Per Scott Maxwell's notes and Twitter feed:

On the road again… goin' places I've never been…
The life I love  is doin' science with my friends…
I'm so glad to be on the road again!
Nice spoof.

Our target is, eventually, the exposed Noachian… stuff… to the northeast of Tisdale-2.

That target is an intermediate (yellow) one before the Noachian, of interest to our geologists. With Oppy's need to drive backward for such a drive goal, we took the long way around. First, back away from Tisdale 2; second, curl around to the East and get us on that Noachian. Per Tim Parker's location map:

There's your candy cane, I guess.

Our navigation imagery didn't take us much further than that ending spot. Using a judicious combination of VisOdom and blind driving, Scott and Ashley got us to that last spot without a sweat. On Sol 2707, they planned a similar-looking drive to head North-Northeast towards the Noachian. We can expect some remote science along the way, and I hear whispers of a RAT grind on the expose outcrop. It'll be mostly precision driving and some strategic MB planning in the background. 

Stay tuned.


Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on my mood, I'm off from MER until the 16th. In the mean time, I'll be catching up on my other work. As a gift to my readers, this will get us two goodies: first, I'll be able to poke in on the SOWG meetings for those shifts I'm not on and still get a good idea of where we're going (remember: we're driving again!); second, I'll get a chance to do a couple of sidebars for this blog, unrelated to MER. 

The first? The Juno Mission! I've got stake in that bad boy and we're going to do some learnin' about it.