Boing Boing 

Why do NASA engineers like peanuts?

As Curiosity was landing safely on Mars, many of you noted that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers orchestrating the whole thing were eating an awful lot of peanuts. In fact, each workstation boasted a little commemorative jar of peanuts. Seriously, what is up with all those peanuts?

Discovery News has an answer. And it's surprisingly interesting.

Turns out, this is a JPL-specific tradition, dating back to 1964, when the lab's funding was on the line after the Ranger program—unmanned missions to photograph the Moon—weren't living up to expectations. In fact, six Ranger missions in a row had failed.

This was the heritage leading up to Ranger 7. There was talk that JPL should be shut down, that a university-affiliated center couldn’t handle a rigorous spaceflight program. There were suggestions that the program had been sabotaged -- a worker found a small polyethylene bag with 14 screws and a lock washer in one of the sealed electronic modules in Ranger 7’s television subsystem.

Just before Ranger 7 launched to the moon on July 28, mission manager Harris Schurmeier handed out peanuts to ease tensions. He figured chewing or playing with them on the table would give his team something else to focus on.

The full story is pretty neat. You can read the rest at Discovery News

Via Ed Yong

Mars Curiosity/LFMAO parody video: "We're NASA and We Know It"

[Video Link]. This parody music video debuted this week on a new YouTube channel called Satire, and mashes up LMFAO's hit “Sexy and I Know It” with the NASA Curiosity mission and abundant JPL-love.

"It comes complete with shout-outs to Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson," reports the Washington Post, which dug into the story behind its creation. Half a million views so far, huh? Best NASA PSA ever.

Mars Curiosity rover's landing: A video by one of her 3,000+ creators at NASA JPL

What a beautiful video by Mark Rober, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: "I was able to work on NASA JPL's Curiosity Mars Rover for 7 years. This video is an attempt to capture what it felt like to have 7 years of your life vindicated in the 7 minute landing. Honestly one of the coolest moments of my life so far.

Read the rest

NASA executes 350-Million-Mile interplanetary software patch on Mars space robot. What'd you do today?

This week the team at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory finished "what amounted to a complete overhaul of the Curiosity Rover’s software," from 350 million miles away on another planet. Ben Cichy, Curiosity’s chief software engineer, explained to Wired News that the software required to help Curiosity land on the surface of Mars and the software it needs to drive around and avoid obstacles are different. The system "didn’t have enough memory to hold the software for both the landing mission and the surface mission, so the software had to be swapped out remotely after landing." The upgrade took four days, not unlike, say, Windows Server 8.

Interview with developer of 2MP cameras taking those amazing Mars photos on the Curiosity rover

As regular readers of this blog will recall, I asked a question of the Mars Curiosity team about imaging technologies during the post-landing press conference at NASA JPL a few days ago.

Related: Digital Photography Review now has an interview with the Mars rover camera project manager. Above, the 34mm (115mm equiv.) Mastcam from the Curiosity rover. This was developed by Mike Ravine and his team at Malin Space Science Systems, a contractor for NASA. Ravine explains how they developed the 2MP main imaging cameras used to transmit those breathtaking images back from Mars.

The slow data rates available for broadcasting images back to Earth and the team's familiarity with that family of sensors played a part, says [Ravine], but the biggest factor was the specifications being fixed as far back as 2004. Multi-shot panoramas will see the cameras deliver high-res images, he explains, but not the 3D movies Hollywood director James Cameron had wanted.

'There's a popular belief that projects like this are going to be very advanced but there are things that mitigate against that. These designs were proposed in 2004, and you don't get to propose one specification and then go off and develop something else. 2MP with 8GB of flash [memory] didn't sound too bad in 2004. But it doesn't compare well to what you get in an iPhone today.'

(thanks, Michael Kammes)

What time is it right now on Mars? There's a NASA app for that.

And you can download it right here, for Mac, Windows, Linux, OS/2, and other open operating systems. About:

Mars24 is a Java application which displays a Mars sunclock, a graphical representation of the planet Mars showing its current sun- and nightsides, along with a numerical readout of the time in 24-hour format. Other displays include a plot showing the relative orbital positions of Mars and Earth and a diagram showing the solar angle and path for a given location on Mars.

Created at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

And for iOS, this looks promising. Haven't tried it, and it's not a NASA product, so YMMV.

Interview with a Mars rover driver: Scott Maxwell of JPL

Photo (NASA JPL): The first two full-resolution images of the Martian surface from the Navigation cameras on NASA's Curiosity rover, which are located on the rover's "head" or mast. The rim of Gale Crater can be seen in the distance beyond the pebbly ground.


Thomas Hayden at science blog The Last Word On Nothing has a wonderful little interview with Scott Maxwell (@marsroverdriver), who works at JPL as a Mars rover driver. Coolest job ever, right?

I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Maxwell at JPL a few weeks before Curiosity touched down, when I accompanied Miles O'Brien on a shoot about MSL for PBS NewsHour. Loved him, and I love how he describes what makes his job so exhilarating:

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I drove her.  It was just a few meters along a simple path — we wouldn’t even bother to yawn at it today — but it was magic to me then, as it’s magic to me now.  I went home and should have slept, but all I could do was stare at the ceiling, in awe that right then, on Mars, there was a robot doing what I told it to do.  It was dead amazing, and that feeling has never left me and I hope it never will.

Read the rest here: SCUBA Diving through the Endless Martian Desert : The Last Word On Nothing.

Mars Curiosity image of the day: first pic by Navigation cameras includes an augmented reality tag

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory today received and published the first photograph shot by the Navigation cameras on NASA's Curiosity rover.

It shows the shadow of the rover's now-upright mast in the center, and the arm's shadow at left. The arm itself can be seen in the foreground. The navigation camera is used to help find the sun -- information that is needed for locating, and communicating, with Earth. After the camera pointed at the sun, it turned in the opposite direction and took this picture. The position of the shadow helps confirm the sun's location. The "augmented reality" or AR tag seen in the foreground can be used in the future with smart phones to obtain more information about the mission.

(via spaceref.com. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A watch that displays time on both Earth and Mars

Looking for a gift for the NASA Mars rover flight controller in your life who has everything? Executive Jewelers makes watches that display Martian time, and watches with dual displays so you know what time it is on Mars *and* Earth, at a glance. (via @milesobrien)

Photo gallery of Mars landing scenes, on both planets

The Atlantic has a doublewide photo gallery of Associated Press photos from the night of the Mars Landing. I'm in this shot (#13). The whole gallery is a great reminder of the range of emotions and excitement you feel when you're witnessing one of these historic space events. I will never forget this night, as long as I live! And I know I'm not alone in that. If you want to know what joy looks like, click onward.

Mars Curiosity rover: NASA's John Grunsfeld and Miles O'Brien on PBS NewsHour

[Video Link] It took just minutes for Curiosity to complete her landing sequence on Mars. But the journey to that point took years of work back here on earth. The celebration of the rover's successful landing continues, and the mission itself will continue for 2 years. On this PBS NewsHour segment, Judy Woodruff talks to science correspondent Miles O'Brien and John Grunsfeld of NASA about Curiosity and the years NASA scientists spent planning the journey to Mars.

Related: From Miles' blog, "Why the Curiosity over Mars…"

What NASA fears most on Mars (image)

"Curiosity makes me very angry, very angry indeed!"

By David Silverman, of Simpsons and Tubatron fame.

Animated GIF of Mars Curiosity descent images

This animated GIF composed of descent images captured by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover as it headed towards landing is better than all the kittens on the internet combined. The video version is here. (via @nasasocial).

Mars Curiosity Rover: Boing Boing's $2.5 billion dollar question about image file types, answered by JPL

Photo: Two of the first images transmitted back by Curiosity, as seen on monitors at JPL 20 minutes after the rover landed on Mars. (Xeni Jardin)


NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was a magical place to be last night, as engineers, flight specialists, NASA administrators, space celebrities, and scientists from many fields gathered to witness the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover. Those seven minutes of terror ended in a picture-perfect landing: an amazing machine went through a crazy Rube Goldbergian descent sequence, and plopped down about two meters away from its planned destination on the Red Planet's surface.

We witnessed history. It seemed impossible. It was awesome.

I sat in on the post-landing press conference, and live-tweeted the evening at @boingboing. During the press conference, after the high-fives and screams of joy subsided, I asked MSL engineer Adam Steltzner a question about those first two all-important thumbnail images Curiosity sent back—critical because the data they contained would tell NASA if the rover had touched down in a safe spot.

[Video of that Q&A moment here.]

Given the great distance and technical challenges involved in transmitting timely data back from Mars, what file type and image compression algorithm(s) did they use for those first "rush" thumbnails? There's a 14 minute delay involved for any signals from Mars to Earth.

A dorky question, perhaps, but I was curious, and figured nobody else would ask. Things like, "Hey how do you guys feel right now," and "What will Curiosity do next," I knew others would tackle.

Mr. Steltzner didn't have details handy about the image file types used, and he referred me to Mars mission image specialist Justin Maki. Today I checked in with Mr. Maki and his JPL colleagues whose work focuses on data compression and interplanetary data transmission. Here's what I learned.

Read the rest

Totally Not Photoshopped photos from Mars (a tumblog of greatness)

More like this: "TOTALLY NOT 'SHOPPED PICS FROM MARS"

(Thanks, Sean Bonner!)

Read the rest

Mars Curiosity moment of joy: NASA JPL team high-fiving after landing (video)

[Video Link] As the post-landing press conference begins, NASA and JPL MSL leaders high-five and cheer with the Mars rover engineering and flight control team. I shot this last night (on my iPhone, pardon the shakiness) inside the Jet Propulsion Lab, at 11:15pm PDT, about 45 minutes after the rover landed, against all odds, on the surface of Mars.

* Despite the image on the screen behind them, this was not a Microsoft press conference.

Curiosity rover "caught in the act of landing"—NASA photo

This just in from Mars:

NASA's Curiosity rover and its parachute were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descended to the surface on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image of Curiosity while the orbiter was listening to transmissions from the rover. Curiosity and its parachute are in the center of the white box; the inset image is a cutout of the rover stretched to avoid saturation. The rover is descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe "Mt. Sharp." From the perspective of the orbiter, the parachute and Curiosity are flying at an angle relative to the surface, so the landing site does not appear directly below the rover.

The parachute appears fully inflated and performing perfectly. Details in the parachute, such as the band gap at the edges and the central hole, are clearly seen. The cords connecting the parachute to the back shell cannot be seen, although they were seen in the image of NASA's Phoenix lander descending, perhaps due to the difference in lighting angles. The bright spot on the back shell containing Curiosity might be a specular reflection off of a shiny area. Curiosity was released from the back shell sometime after this image was acquired.

More about the photo here. (courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)