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Trip to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab

ROCKWALL, TX (March 24, 2014) Our family enjoyed a wonderful Spring Break in Huntington Beach, CA visiting my son and his lovely wife at their home. After graduating from Texas A&M in 2012, our son took a job at Boeing, working on America’s next manned spacecraft. I’m so proud of him.

Since this column is supposed to be about our Universe,  and not the whale watching trip (which was amazing by the way), here’s the story of my visit to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). Since becoming a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador over a decade ago, this was my first trip to the promised land. Whether you’re a space geek, scientist or just a regular American, a visit to this place will surely fill you with pride and a sense of awe at what mankind has accomplished as we push the limits of discovering our Universe.

JPL  designs, builds, tests and operates most of America’s robotic space missions. JPL is where America’s presence in space literally began. From humble beginnings  on January 31, 1958, Explorer 1, a JPL/Army system became the first successfully launched satellite by the United States. Today, JPL’s missions include Voyager 1 and 2, the most distant travelers mankind has ever created. These amazing spacecraft have been travelling for over 40-years at 80,000mph and only recently left our Solar system.  Every so often, these time travelers send a whisper of data back home. I was there at JPL in Mission Control when Voyager-1 whispered back to its creators. She’s so far away (40-billion Km) that the round-trip time for radio transmission is 35.2 hours….that’s with radio frequency energy that travels at light speed (186,000 miles per second)! Voyager’s whisper is represented by the green satellite dish on the display and it’s being received by the 79-meter Goldstone antenna out in the Mojave Desert in this image. Wow!

Figure 1 Mission Control at JPL Receiving Voyager-1's Whisper from 40 Billion Km

Another highlight of the JPL adventure was visiting the In-Situ Lab where all the missions are tested and troubleshooting while “on mission” which is shorthand for how rocket scientists figure out how to get the Mars Rover Unstuck when they get it stuck.  Ok, to be fair, I wouldn’t be a very good driver if I had to react 8-minutes after my brain told me to turn the wheel or step on the brake….that’s what the Rover drivers face every day and night!  So they use the rock pile and the sandbox below to figure out ways to get unstuck like I described.  That’s the 3d Mars Exploration Rover (MER), now a test bed without solar panels, science instruments or radio gear. She receives commands via the umbilical cord in the picture. If you look carefully, you’ll see a strange little green visitor standing on  Rock Pile.  These folks have a great sense of humor.

Figure 2 The In-Situ Lab at JPL and a Mars Rover Being Watched by Marvin the Martian

Another highlight of JPL is found in the “Clean Rooms” where the work of assembling, testing and calibrating spacecraft happens.

The Clean Room below is a “10,000 protocol,” which means it can have no more than 10,000 contaminant  particles of size 0.5 micron per a cubic foot of air. Good question:  0.5 micron is 150-times smaller than a human hair and there are less than…well, you get the idea.

The cleanest rooms at JPL are the ones that are used for missions sent out to search for evidence of life and those are built in “100 protocol” rooms. The folks below are working on three missions. The rocket engine  looking thing on the stand is actually part of an antenna that will be launched later this year to measure soil moisture on Earth to help farmers and determine drought severity before it happens.  This is another fine example of how NASA helps us on Earth.

Figure 3 JPL Clean Room, Note Large Size of Copper Colored Antenna Feed in Foreground

The clean rooms really hit home for me as I counted the incredible legacy of NASA missions that were built here.

The 16 mission patches below represent billions of dollars and millions of hours of work by America’s best.   But the object that always raises chill-bumps on my arms is not seen in this picture for it occupied its very own space on an entire wall of the massive science bay…..The Stars and Stripes.

Figure 4 The 16 Missions Built in the JPL Clean Room as Seen in Mission Patches

Finally visiting NASA’s  Jet Propulsion Lab is an amazing testimony to American science, engineering and technology prowess and made me proud(er) about my country and more hopeful for our future.

Oh, and one more thing….it looks like my favorite TV show, The Big Bang Theory is going to have to change its name.  You see, the BICEP telescopes in the Antarctic have detected direct evidence of the hyperinflation that science predicted had to occur for the Big Bang to be a real thing.  So that’s it, what started with the discovery of cosmic background radiation (causes your TV static) in 1960 by Penzias and Wilson at Bell Labs, followed by an enormous body of consistent evidence has finally borne out the missing link…the explosive echoes of the Big Bang itself.  So folks, the new name of my favorite show will be shortened by one word and should now be, The Big Bang.

Eternal thanks to my friend and longtime Solar System Ambassador Program Manager, Kay Ferrari for hosting my visit to JPL. Kay is herself a testimony to this wonderful workplace, having been at the lab for over 30 years!

Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall. Images provided by Max Corneau.

Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.

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