Space & Planetary Science: November 2012 Archives

Backpedaling on Mars

Undisclosed Finding by Mars Rover Fuels Intrigue, NY Times

"Guy Webster, a spokesman for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which operates Curiosity, said the findings would be "interesting" rather than "earthshaking." Mr. Webster noted that "a really big announcement," if one should occur, would most likely be made at NASA headquarters in Washington and not at an academic conference."

NASA's "History Book"-Worthy Discovery Is Really Just a Big Misunderstanding, Slate

"While it's a little odd that NASA's communication team didn't manage to quickly quash the rumor after the original report aired, Veronica McGregor, NASA's news and social media manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The Slatest late Tuesday night that they did their best to set the story straight."

Update Set in San Francisco About Curiosity Mars Rover

"Rumors and speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect. The news conference will be an update about first use of the rover's full array of analytical instruments to investigate a drift of sandy soil. One class of substances Curiosity is checking for is organic compounds -- carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life. At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics."

JPL director: Mars rover Curiosity may have found organic compounds, clue in search for life, Denver Post

"The Curiosity rover may have found organic compounds on Mars, Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Charles Elachi said in Rome on Wednesday, according to multiple reports. "Perhaps Curiosity has found simple organic molecules," Elachi said at La Sapienza University, according to La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno. "It's preliminary data that must be checked (on) organic, not biological, molecules." The statement figures to set off a new round of speculation and excitement about the possibility of life on Mars. Elachi, however, made clear that Curiosity cannot find life."

Keith's note: This is just hilarious. NASA JPL PAO has had more than a week to deal with misquotes, parsing, and "what he really meant to say" in connection with John Grotzinger's NPR interview. But only today do they finally admit that all the speculation was incorrect. They could have put this all to bed last week and avoided all of the needless arm waving, speculation, and stories on the evening news.

Keith's update: NASA JPL PAO just tweeted via @MarsCuriosity "Everybody, chill. After careful analysis, there are no Martian organics in recent samples. Update Dec 3". Alas JPL PAO is not allowing offsite media to ask questions at an event that involves the formal release of data obtained by a government space mission. This is a break with NASA PAO practice since Curiosity landed. Offsite media access was not mentioned in the JPL press release (as is always the case). Oddly JPL can't do a standard media dial-in for the MSL event at AGU but theyo ffer a standard dial-in for the Voyager media event - also at AGU - just 2 hours later. NASA SMD PAO refuses to reply to a simple question on this topic. So much for being open.

Keith's update: NASA SMD PAO has still not responded to my question about media access to this event. But if you find this link at AGU you learn that offsite media (and anyone from the public) can only ask questions remotely via a chat function in a box on the webcast once it has started. A teleconference might be set up - but that will ony happen if the webcast is broken - and again anyone can call in - public and media alike. There does not seem to be any way to distinguish what they call "working media" from all other viewers since you can sign up using any name you want. In other words: if you are not in the room, your chance of asking a question as a member of the news media is rather low. Oh well.

AGU says that "Working members of the media may ask questions by emailing them to news@agu.org." but they do not exactly explain how you are granted status as "working members of the media" If you register as "working media" online or in person you need to send them 3 articles you have written, provide a press badge etc. But if you register as "media" for this webcast you only have to use your real name.

NASA Request for Information: Concepts for Applications of Large Space Optics

"NASA is soliciting broad community inputs in support of a study activity focused on utilization of large flight qualified optical systems recently transferred to NASA from another Government Agency."

Keith's note: "Another Government Agency"? Who writes this stuff? This is just goofy. Everyone knows that the NRO gave NASA hardware that was supposed to have been used in spy satellites. Specifically, the hardware came from the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA). Wikipedia notes that the New York Times called the FIA "perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects.". Any questions?

- NRO Gives NASA Two Hubble-Class Telescopes (Shh!), earlier post
- Are NASA's New Telescopes NRO Future Imagery Architecture Leftovers?, earlier post
- How Much Will the Free NRO Space Telescopes Cost?, earlier post
- NASA Seeks Members for NRO Hardware Study Group, earlier post

Keith's note: Last week NASA PAO was telling the media that there would be an announcement (of what they did not know) of MSL results at the AGU meeting tomorrow next week. It has been a week since this story broke - one that spoke of results that would be "Earthshaking" and "one for the history books". Since then NASA has tried to unspin those characterizations but has said nothing officially (no media advisories, etc.) It would seem that no one at NASA knows what will be announced - or if anything will be announced - and that they do not care about telling the public - or the media - what is going on.

Given NASA SMD's recent botched PR efforts with regard to life in the universe i.e. "Arsenic-based life" and "Earthlike planets", yet another false alarm or flurry of unsubstantiated arm waving and hype followed by spin control would really undermine SMD's credibility.

Press Conference: Mars Rover Curiosity's Investigations in Gale Crater

"Moscone Convention Center, San Francisco, California Monday, 3 December 9:00 a.m."

Keith's update: NASA has not made any statement about this event - nor have they said whether the press briefing will be webcast/televised or if media who are not at the meeting will be able to participate.

MSL Results: "Earthshaking ... one for the history books" Or Not?, earlier post

Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now, NPR

"The exciting results are coming from an instrument in the rover called SAM. "We're getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting," John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, says during my visit last week to his office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. That's where data from SAM first arrive on Earth. "The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down," says Grotzinger. SAM is a kind of miniature chemistry lab. Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM, and it will tell you what the sample is made of. Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something earthshaking. "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good," he says."

Keith's 20 Nov note: NASA SMD PAO has confirmed that Grotzinger will make an announcement at the AGU meeting next Wednesday. Given that he repeatedly uses phrases such as "Earthshaking" and "one for the history books" when talking to the media (clearly with zero NASA PAO guidance) one had better hope that his news will indeed be of that importance. Of course, while everyone seems to be thinking that SAM may have found something important in terms of organic compounds, it could well be that it has found absolutely no sign of organics. I suppose both extremes could be considered "Earthshaking" and "one for the history books". Given NASA SMD's recent botched PR efforts with regard to life in the universe i.e. "Arsenic-based life" and "Earthlike planets", yet another false alarm or flurry of unsubstantiated arm waving and hype would really undermine SMD's credibility.

Keith's 21 Nov 10:07 am EST update: Now NASA PAO and others are finally being dragged into the viral discussion. Perhaps if Grotzinger coordinated his message and choice of words (in advance), things would calm down a little. Given that everyone at NASA is either on vacation or about to go away for a long Thanksgiving weekend, I suspect this flurry won't really diminish. All too soon the UK tabloids will be proclaiming that Curiosity has (once again) "found life" on Mars.

Dcouverte historique pour Curiosity : le vrai, le faux, Ciel & Space

VIA Google Translate: "A "buzz" unjustified "None of that!" Insists the French Michel Cabane, Co scientific instrument Sat "We do not understand what is happening. We have absolutely no news to announce glowing!"

A Mars Announcement 'for the History Books'? Not So Fast, Time

JPL spokesman Guy Webster made just this point today in an e-mail to TIME: "As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books," he wrote. That's not to say he rules out the possibility of truly big news. "It won't be earthshaking," he said in a later phone call, "but it will be interesting."

Keith's 21 Nov 2:46 pm EST update: According to Mars Curiosity's Facebook page: "What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission "one for the history books." This is just bizarre.

First Grotzinger, the mission's Co-I gets quoted on a national news outlet saying some rather provocative things. Then NASA PAO refuses to make any statement either confirming or denying what Grotzinger said (indeed they have decline to dispute these comments when asked). Then someone at JPL takes to a Facebook page to try and cast doubt on Internet rumors. Between Grotzinger's comments, and lack of PAO clarification, it is obvious that no one really cares if these rumors continue - or if they are inaccurate - and also, that no one is really in charge of public relations for this mission.

Keith's 23 Nov note: Yes, when you listen to the audio, its the journalist who uses the word "Earthshaking". And then Grotzinger agrees with the word (there is no evidence from the tape that he denied that this word was accurate in any way). When you ask NASA PAO if they dispute the characterization of Grotiznger's comments as stating that the new data is "Earthshaking" NASA PAO says "No".

If this announcement is not "Earthshaking" then why does NASA repeatedly pass on repeated inquires from the media when they offer NASA a chance to dispute the accuracy of the term or to distance themselves from its use in this specific context?

Printing Out Rover Models

NASA GRC Solicitation: Curiosity Rover Scale Models

"NASA/GRC has a requirement for two (2) high quality 1/10th scale models and one (1) 1/5th scale model of the Curiosity Rover. NASA/GRC intends to purchase the items from Scale Model Company on a sole source basis due to the proprietary restrictions on drawings."

Keith's note: "Proprietary restrictions on drawings"? Gee, I wonder were this company got the data for the drawings of Curiosity in the first place? (Likely) answer: one way or another it all comes from NASA - even if the company did additional work on the drawings for their own uses. Too bad NASA has to spend lots of money on these models. There is little, if any, incentive at NASA to find cheaper ways to procure things like this since the expensive way is the way things have always been done. I wonder how much they are paying for these models? If I ask NASA PAO what the models cost they will almost certainly refuse to tell me and will make me file a FOIA request.

More or less every NASA center has 3-D printers these days and is experimenting with 3-D printing of satellite and rocket engine components. Why not take NASA's Curiosity drawings and make them open source? There's a large, growing DIY / "Maker" community who'd just love to do this for free. Then anyone (including NASA) can just print the models out - at a variety of scales - in a variety of materials - on an as-needed basis. Not only would this provide a huge audience with a chance to get a more intimate understanding of how these rovers work, it would also end up costing less money to make these models that NASA just loves to spend money on.

That said, I am sure the ITAR enforcers will find reasons why you can't release things like this - even if the schematics simply show the outside of components - not their internal design. Yet nothing stops a company like Scaled Model Company from producing a model on their own - one of sufficient fidelity that NASA itself wants to buy it.

- 3-D Printing and Space, NASAHackspace
- 3D Printed CubeSat, Fabbaloo
- PrintSat - An Amateur Radio 3D Printer CubeSat, Southgate
- 3D Printing of cubesat structure, YouTube
- NASA 3D prints rocket parts -- with steel, not plastic, ExtremeTech

Space telescope to get software fix, Nature

"Long-standing but little-publicized software problems, and insufficient memory in one of the detectors, have clouded the vision of the world's leading -ray telescope to the highest-energy -rays. The flaws do not seriously threaten the satellite's observations at low energies. But they have hampered studies at energies greater than 10 billion electronvolts (GeV), which could yield clues to dark matter and the powerful stellar explosions known as -ray bursts, says particle physicist Bill Atwood at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a member of the Fermi team who helped to design the craft's instruments."

Doubt cast on Fermi's dark matter smoking gun, New Scientist

"The team first had to reprocess their data from the galactic centre to account for a glitch caused by a damaged instrument on the telescope. That revealed that the signal had shifted from 130 to 135 GeV, Albert told the Fourth International Fermi Symposium in Monterey, California, on 2 November. What's more, that signal had faded to statistical insignificance. "The feature's gotten a little smaller," she says. "It hasn't gone away completely, but we do not see it to be very significant. At this point, we have to cast doubt on this being a dark matter line."

Fermi Observations of Dwarf Galaxies Provide New Insights on Dark Matter

"Scientists working with data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have looked for signals from some of these hypothetical particles by zeroing in on 10 small, faint galaxies that orbit our own. Although no signals have been detected, a novel analysis technique applied to two years of data from the observatory's Large Area Telescope (LAT) has essentially eliminated these particle candidates for the first time."

NASA Hosts Nov. 2 Teleconference About Mars Rover Progress

"NASA will host a media teleconference at 10 a.m. PDT (1 p.m. EDT) on Friday, Nov. 2, to provide an update on Curiosity's studies of the Martian atmosphere."

Curiosity set to weigh in on Mars methane puzzle, Nature

"NASA has announced that Grotzinger's team will discuss atmospheric measurements at a briefing on 2 November. If the rover has detected methane at sufficiently high concentration, or exhibiting temporal variations of the kind that suggests microbial activity, then it will surely motivate a desire to identify and map the sources."

Keith's note: Up until now, NASA has been rather quiet about the characterization of methane distribution by Curiosity ...

Watch LIVE

Keith's update: Press conference statement: "How much methane did we see? So far we have no definitive detection of methane. We have no detection of methane but we will keep looking in the month ahead."

NASA'S Curiosity Rover Provides Clues to Changes in Martian Atmosphere

"Methane is clearly not an abundant gas at the Gale Crater site, if it is there at all. At this point in the mission we're just excited to be searching for it," said SAM TLS lead Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "While we determine upper limits on low values, atmospheric variability in the Martian atmosphere could yet hold surprises for us."

Marc's note: I've added the complete recording of today's telecon with reporters questions to the above press release.


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