Google+

The Lab Head Speaks Days Before The Mars Science Laboratory’s Scheduled Landing

Charles Elachi is busy this Friday morning. It’s three days before the Curiosity rover is set to land on Mars, and the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is cheerfully making tracks between a NASA social media event and his office on JPL’s campus.

Elachi has been at JPL for 42 years: He came to Caltech in 1968 to earn his Ph.D. in electrical sciences and started working at the lab in 1970. He became director in 2001. “I’m a lifer,” he says. “It has been such a great career.”

Elachi also has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California, training he sought after learning he’d be the principal investigator for a science experiment aboard the space shuttle. “I thought I better know how to read a budget sheet,” he explains. And, after befriending some geologists, he sought a master’s degree in geology from UCLA.  “I used to go with them on field trips,” he recalls. “And we were talking about sedimentary rocks and igneous rocks, and I thought, ‘Gee, it would be fun to learn this so at least I know what they’re talking about.’”

We sit down for a conversation in his office, which is decorated with mini replicas of JPL’s far-flung robotic explorers. The Spitzer Space Telescope, the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, GRACE and GRAIL — there are dozens. “That’s Juno, on the way to Jupiter,” he says, pointing to a brownish, three-pronged miniature. “There’s Odyssey — that’s the key spacecraft for communicating with MSL,” he says, gesturing to the mini Mars orbiter that will relay information from the Curiosity rover, starting on Sunday evening.

And there, already nestled in among the others, is a tiny Curiosity rover.

Here are some highlights of our conversation about the latest Mars mission:

JPL is going to try and land a giant rover on Mars. How are you feeling about that? Are you nervous?

Well, yeah, to be honest. I asked that question to our lead person who’s doing the entry, descent and landing [Adam Steltzner] and he said, “Intellectually I feel great because we have done every test. Emotionally, I’m frightened like hell.”

And in a sense, I feel the same. Intellectually, we have done everything possible. This is probably the best tested, verified, analyzed lander we’ve ever done. But there is always a risk. You have 76 [pyrotechnic devices] which have to fire in the right sequence at the right time. You have a parachute which has been packaged a couple of years ago, which has to open and unfold and work perfectly. Everything has to work perfectly in order to have a successful landing. And there is no way we could have tested it exactly like we are flying it.

We don’t have a Mars atmosphere and a Mars environment to do that. So we had to test things in pieces. We did test the sky crane, we did test hovering, we did test the radar on a jet airplane coming down at the same speed. But putting them all together and having them all work in seven minutes — there’s no way you could test that.

That’s why there is this nail biting time. We’re going to be sitting in the room watching every event that is happening. But I feel confident. We have a first-rate team, and that’s the best you can ask for.

Where will you be watching from?

I’ll be in the mission operation room, standing behind everybody there, nervously watching all the data coming down, listening to what’s happening. I’ll be listening to the same thing you’ll be listening to. We’ll be transmitting all the info in real-time and the commentary. It will be exciting. Probably we’ll be sharing it with tens of millions of people.

It’s going to make great TV.

That’s true, that’s true. They’re going to have it in real-time in Times Square, on the big screen, so I’m sure there will be lots of people watching that.

access

Models of JPL’s robotic explorers line JPL director Charles Elachi’s office.

Assuming the Rover comes down, and it’s working and completes its mission, what do you hope its legacy will be? What are some of the big questions it can answer?

With Spirit and Opportunity and the orbiting assets, the community is pretty convinced that Mars did have an ocean a few billion years ago, which lasted for a significant period of time. A water ocean. So the immediate  next question is, if there was a liquid ocean — and because it was liquid, that means the temperature was like here on Earth — and it’s there at roughly the same time that life evolved on Earth, could life have evolved on Mars?

If there were the right ingredients, the right temperature, the right liquid, the right organic material, then the next question is, did life evolve? How far did it evolve? And where is it now?

Now, Curiosity is not looking specifically for life, but it’s going to look at the ingredients, the organic material, the composition of the rock. Of course, if we see any bugs or something that’ll be amazing. But that’s not the real purpose. We’re doing it like a scientist, step by step, learning about the basic ingredients.

That’s the key objective, and hopefully ultimately that will prepare us for bringing samples back to Earth and doing much more detailed analyses with those samples.

If for some reason it looks like Mars never was habitable, would we still be pushing for a Mars sample return mission?

Yeah, I think we will. The life habitability is one factor, but so is really understanding the evolution of a planet. This is a planet which is very similar to us, in the big picture. It’s not much different from us, in terms of distance from the sun, it has the same geological processes on the surface. The same laws of physics, same laws of biology evolved on there. So if really we don’t find anything, that will be equally fascinating. Why did life only happen on this planet? And what are the differences which have led it to happen only on this planet? Bringing samples back and analyzing them in more detail to understand that will be equally exciting.

It will be cool to bring samples back from anywhere.

Oh yeah. And bringing samples back also has another engineering aspect to it. If you’re thinking of sending humans somewhere in the future, you need to learn how you go there, how you land, how you rove around, how you take off, how you come back. So in a sense, a sample return is a small step in a dry run, if you want — even though the humans will be a big step beyond that. But it gives us a better understanding of all these steps that have to be taken for a human mission.

Speaking of sending humans somewhere, at one point you said, “It’s important to stay bold and keep pushing the limits.”

Yeah, that’s true. Let me tell you a little anecdote that struck me here at JPL. A couple of years ago, I was talking with one of our new employees. I asked her, “What excites you about JPL, why are you working here?” And she said, “Well, what I like about this place — in the morning, I sit down with my colleagues at breakfast and talk about what‘s impossible, and then we go and do it.”

And that’s the kind of thing we need. That’s how explorers function. And inventors. You really think about what’s the limit, and then you go and push it, and find out what’s on other side. The way people do inventions, is they don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Today I’m going to invent something.”

The way we  do inventions, in any field not only in space, is you take a very, very hard problem and you put good people on it and tell them go and do it. And to do that, they have to invent something. I think that’s how the human mind operates, by getting a challenge.

Where do you think the limit is now? What are we pushing against? What’s next?

Something that’s very high on my list is taking pictures of neighboring planets. We do have the capability to take what I call the family portrait of the neighboring few thousand planetary systems. In my mind, that would be one of the most exciting things. Even if it’s a pixel. But if we can get more than a pixel, that will be great. That would change completely our thinking of the world around us.

The other one, which is equally exciting but in a different way, is going and visiting the different oceans around our solar system. Going to the ocean in Europa, the ocean in Enceladus, possibly the ocean on Titan — at least some people now believe there might be an ocean below the surface of Titan. And really see how these oceans look. Could thing have evolved in them? It’s the same thing we talked about with Mars. We know there are water oceans. And then if they’re liquid, that mean you have the right temperature. And the question is, could life have evolved in that area?

I’d say those are two of the most exciting things that probably will happen in the next 10 or 20 years.

I’ve been asking various people on the MSL team, if you could go to Mars instead of the rover, would you go? And they all are saying no.

Well, it’s pretty nice here. Mars is exciting scientifically, but still, our planet is amazingly nice.

Do you think there’s life out there?

Oh yeah. I see absolutely no reason why life is not across the universe. Here you have the same laws of physics, the same laws of chemistry, the same laws of biology, the same material everywhere. There is really no reason whatsoever that life only happened on our planet. I’m pretty sure life is there across the universe.

But as a scientist, you have to prove it.

We are trained, you don’t come in with a new theory unless you can prove it, and that’s one of the challenges that we are all working on. You do it in steps. Find all the ingredients, all the environments, and so on. The exciting thing will be if we find planets which are not very far away, which have all those ingredients, then to focus on them and see, can we get any signals? That will be another very interesting thing.

What else do you think is important to tell Science Newsreaders, or the public in general?

A couple of points, particularly because of the budget environment. One key point I keep making to all the politicians and decision-makers is that investment in science and education is absolutely essential for our country. The reason our country is so strong economically, and we have the lifestyle we have, is because of the investments that have been made in the past in developing new capabilities, new technologies, educating young people.

Who would have thought the Internet would change our life? It was an investment done by some of the DOD organizations to communicate, to have more resiliency in case of a catastrophe. So they came up with the Internet. Or you look at GPS, which we use all the time now, and that was also an investment the government did in terms of putting up a network of satellites. Or you could look at cell phones, which we cannot live without. Lots of that development was done in the space program, when they were developing low-power, high-efficiency electronics.

I think particularly when things are challenging, like the economy we have now, this is the time to increase investment, not the time to reduce it.

I hope that’s what the government will do. It’s going to require the public to say, “Look we really need to increase our investment in science in general, or space, or medicine — that’s what’s going to keep our economy strong.”

Otherwise, we’re going to fall behind other countries.

Education, scientific research, technology are probably the key areas that are going to help us. This is not only gaining knowledge, even though that’s very important, but it’s an investment which could strengthen our economy because of the inventions and the new technology and process of gaining knowledge.

Would you put planetary science in that category of things that need funding?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Almost all the science missions we do, even though the goal is to achieve more knowledge — by working that process of gaining knowledge, you develop a lot of new technology, new approaches to do things. Inventions happen as we seek knowledge. I would put all of space science in that category.

If I was in charge of the country, I would double the NASA budget overnight.

Source: Science News / Nadia Drake / Photo of JPL director Charles Elachi

Entertainment

For movies opening January 13, 2017

  OPENING THIS WEEK Kam's Kapsules Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun by Kam Williams For movies opening January 13, 2017   BIG BUDGET FILMS The Bye Bye Man (PG-13 for terror, violence, sexuality, bloody images, mature themes, profanity, partial nudity and underage alcohol abuse) Haunted house horror flick about a diabolical, supernatural demon (Doug Jones) unwittingly unleashed by a trio of college students (Douglas … [Read More its Good for You.....]

Books

In the World of Fiction: The Oldies but Goodies Are Back

  In the World of Fiction: The Oldies but Goodies Are Back by Amy Lignor   Readers, 2017 has arrived. And the one thing that rises above all the other so-called ‘trends’ that publishers and book lovers are looking forward to seeing this year is one, undeniable and exciting fact: Beloved authors will step back into the limelight. Trends are odd. There are those of us who never assumed that the whole utopian word as well as dystopian … [Read More its Good for You...]

Art

The Day After the Day Of

  The Day After the Day Of by Paul Ilechko   The sky sheds its tears. This morning is the morning of the day after. The day of mourning, the day after the day of.  I beseech the sky to shed tears in order to wash away the tears on my face.   This is the first day of the time after. This is the beginning of a new time, the days of pain, the days of sorrow. We are in mourning. The sky looks down and sheds its tears for … [Read More its Good For You...]

Real Estate

History Being Sold to the Highest Bidder

  History Being Sold to the Highest Bidder by Amy Lignor   For the longest time, scientists and archaeologists have been confused and bemused by various discoveries they’ve unearthed that offer little or no explanation as to the who, what, and why of the people who created these things or left them behind. Even now, in 2017, there are discoveries being studied; stories that were once legends now have actual bits of proof being found that … [Read More its Good for You.....]

Lifestyle

Groundswell for Chazelle!

  Damien Chazelle The “La La Land” Interview with Kam Williams Groundswell for Chazelle! Damien Chazelle wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning Whiplash which landed five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle. The movie won a trio of Oscars in the Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons) categories. In 2013, his short film of the same name won the Short Film … [Read More its Good for You...]

Outdoors

Top Five Florida Resorts Catering to Do it Yourself Boaters

  Top Five Florida Resorts Catering to Do it Yourself Boaters By Ted Lund Summertime is adventure time for families that want to boat and fish together, and there is no better way to do that than find a resort that caters to do it yourself boaters and anglers. And no place has options like Florida. But before the family can set sail for adventure, you need to find the right boat. One of the best on the water is the Sea Chaser Hybrid Fish … [Read More its Good for You...]

Sports

The NFL Looks at David vs. Goliath

  The NFL Looks at David vs. Goliath by Amy Lignor   This has been one of those odd football seasons where the facts given at the beginning by those panels of “experts” that “know” a great deal about America’s favorite game, turned out to be more than a little wrong. What’s the strangest thing that just might happen when it comes to the Super Bowl? Easy to answer. It just might be that for the first time a QB who didn’t actually play for … [Read More its Good for You...]

Business

Spotlight on Africa

  Spotlight on Africa by Amy Lignor   As the year winds down and comes to a close, it is Africa that is receiving some headlines that call for many changes and improvements to be made in the coming years. It was Ambassador Amina Mohamed (Nairobi, Kenya) that spoke recently about the African Union Commission (AUC) and how the group must provide leadership in the coming years. After all, the nation of Africa is, in truth, the cradle … [Read More its Good for You...]

Travel

The Grandest New Year’s Celebrations Around the World

    The Grandest New Year’s Celebrations Around the World by Amy Lignor   Oh, yes…there are many, many places to travel in order to ring in that New Year in style. Some people have already stated that they see 2017 becoming one of the ‘best of the best’ years the world has ever seen – from technology to business to education to even “going greener” – heck, green has even been chosen as the top color of 2017. But where should you … [Read More its Good for You...]

Green Living

2017 Will Be Green!

    2017 Will Be Green! by Amy Lignor   This statement is not a “hopeful” imagination talking; it is actually quite true. Very recently the Pantone Color Institute declared that green will most definitely be THE color for 2017. This is a company that calls themselves the “global color authority,” and states that everything from high fashion to trends will be on the green path throughout next year. So…when we look at a “green” … [Read More its Good for You...]