Chatting It Up With NASA

To coincide with the landing of one of two NASA Mars Exploratory Rovers Saturday, Spirit, #maestro filled with people, mainly from the /. crowd. As with any large chat room, conversations varied widely, covering both serious questions and insane topics.

I extracted some of the best conversation of the evening from my logs. I swapped the order of some messages to make it easier to follow, and I made two edits to make this log G-rated, but all punctuation and grammar is ripped straight from Saturday night.

I think I echo the thoughts of a number of people in thanking Jeff, Justin, Erik, and Sean for an enjoyable evening. I know I learned a lot. There was something of a thrill in getting to ask NASA staffers about the mission as it unfolded. Thanks, guys! I had a blast.

The times are HST (UTC-10) on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2004.

[19:03:22] <protagora> what does JPL Jeff do?
[19:03:59] <JPL-Jeff> I led the development of the software that the scientists use to operate the rover
[19:04:11] <JPL-Jeff> And I help build the daily plans for the rover
[19:04:11] <ph2> JPL-Jeff: nice work 🙂

[19:04:20] <RFC_1459> JPL-Jeff: you remembered to make all metric conversions correct right? 😉
[19:04:29] <JPL-Jeff> RFC – evidently!!!

[19:11:05] <ImmortalNUT> we can send a probe millions of miles to mars but fedex cant get a small package to my house =\

[19:11:46] <[av]bani> PING spirit.lander.mars ( from : 56(84) bytes of data.
[19:11:46] <[av]bani> 64 bytes from spirit.lander.mars ( icmp_seq=1 ttl=61 time=1263140ms
[19:11:46] <[av]bani> 64 bytes from spirit.lander.mars ( icmp_seq=2 ttl=61 time=1263124ms
[19:11:46] <[av]bani> 64 bytes from spirit.lander.mars ( icmp_seq=3 ttl=61 time=1263136ms
[19:12:09] <[av]bani> checkout that ping
[19:12:07] * Horse laughs out loud at [av]bani
[19:12:07] <RFC_1459> lol [av]bani
[19:12:03] <[A]MD> wow, it has a low*** IP
[19:12:39] <[A]MD> can we seriously ping the rover?
[19:12:44] <sh1m> no
[19:13:18] <MosServ> [A]MD: They would have to string a very large wire from Mars to Earth.

[19:22:19] <[av]bani> im looking forward to huygens landing
[19:22:25] <[av]bani> now *that* will be interesting
[19:22:46] <[av]bani> they dont even know if theyll land on solid surface or a methane lake
[19:22:42] <Lorthos> [av]bani: I agree… Huygens will be amazing
[19:22:29] <Gaurav> huygens? what’s that?
[19:22:39] <vj> Gaurav: piggyback probe on Cassini
[19:22:34] <[av]bani> titan lander
[19:23:18] <Lorthos> We’ve never landed on Titan before, or any body in the outer solar system
[19:23:32] <Gaurav> when’re we doing the cassini/huygen thing
[19:23:44] <Lorthos> Gaurav: Late 2004 or early 2005 I think
[19:23:55] <afoster> I read up on Huygens a few days ago – it’s got a tonne of instruments on it, including (very importantly) a camera which will take *lots* of pictures. 🙂
[19:24:07] <[av]bani> afoster -> it ias a *descent imager*
[19:24:13] <[av]bani> which will be really cool if it works
[19:24:52] <[av]bani> of course, instead of 20 minutes, the lag from huygens will be like hours 😡

[19:28:46] <Lorthos> They need a nuclear powered rover that can go for years
[19:29:02] <vj> Lorthos: that’d be extremely dangrerous
[19:29:09] <vj> Lorthos: and, i think solar power is quite sufficient
[19:29:14] <vj> provided you include wipers 😉
[19:30:38] <Rudy_> btw, aren’t the voyagers nuclear-powered?
[19:30:43] <[av]bani> radioisotope thermal generators
[19:30:46] <vj> yes, they have RTGs
[19:30:48] <[av]bani> batteries with 20 year life spans 😀

[19:37:46] <CWhiz> JPL-Jeff: Out of curiosity, does your boss know you’re here?
[19:37:52] <Ex1le> lol
[19:38:10] <JPL-Jeff> CWhiz: I’m working the press room tonight. I think this qualifies as “outreach”
[19:38:55] <Horse> I like this guy a lot more than the last Nasa Boss – he seems more “real”

[19:45:28] <abcbooze> I heard they didn’t get to test the parachute system with the beagle
[19:45:43] <abcbooze> how can u send it without testing the parachutes
[19:45:49] <Ceres27> they did. But the airbags didnt get a second test.

[19:47:08] <Akain> JPL-Jeff do you get to drive the rover?
[19:47:27] <JPL-Jeff> Akain – I help build the plans for the rover. Scary, eh?

[19:53:03] <DoubleDogDare> JPL-Jeff: Can you speak about the software used on the Rover? Like the OS, the languages used to program it, etc?
[19:53:19] * cat-regex thinks that JPL-Jeff should add “no, can’t talk about that” to the topic
[19:53:44] <JPL-Jeff> cat – can’t talk about what?
[19:53:56] <cat-regex> JPL – the os and software environment?
[19:54:29] <JPL-Jeff> cat – I don’t work on the on-board software, so there’s little danger that I’d release something sensitive 🙂
[19:54:35] * cat-regex *grins*
[19:57:48] <ocnarfid> JPL-Jeff: You can not confirm or deny the OS of the rover?
[19:58:17] <JPL-Jeff> I’m sorry, I don’t know exactly what the OS is on the rover
[19:58:30] <JPL-Jeff> We use vxworks for most of our technology rovers
[19:59:04] <JPL-Jeff> But I write software to talk to the rover. Ironically I don’t need to know what OS it uses 🙂
[19:59:14] <dma`> You do NOT want a kernel panic in deep space.

[20:04:33] <nope> what’s the radio dealy to mars right now?
[20:04:42] <Mah_Skywarn> 9 mins
[20:04:42] <[av]bani> ~20 min?
[20:04:50] <[av]bani> er, roundtrip

[20:06:43] <JPL-Justin> Hey guys!
[20:06:45] <JPL-Justin> What’s up?
[20:06:53] <JPL-Justin> I’m a Maestro developer.
[20:06:58] <JPL-Justin> Has anyone tried it so far?
[20:07:24] <Horse> very cool and the whole public release is a great idea justin
[20:07:13] <Nylyst> Justin: yes and can’t wait to see real data
[20:07:20] <JPL-Justin> Yeah the real data is awesome
[20:07:28] <JPL-Justin> I must admit I’m a little sad we have to downsample everything but…
[20:07:37] <JPL-Justin> Not enough bandwidth for 40 gigs of data per person per rover.
[20:06:57] <Chu> So JPL-Jeff, JPL-Erik and JPL-Justin all built the Rover?
[20:07:03] <Nylyst> cool, all the JPL guys are showin up
[20:07:18] <FD_> Congrates JPL/other affialiated guys
[20:07:19] <Gaurav> you JPL guys are like a gaming clan, we should get together one night and play some UT

[20:09:42] <Rudy__> q: if martians do showup to attack the rover, will it deploy some type of anti-martian taser or anti-gravity weapon?
[20:09:53] <JPL-Justin> As far as I know, there are not weapons on the rover.
[20:10:02] <JPL-Justin> I have suggested that they use some sort of radar jamming countermeasures
[20:10:07] <JPL-Justin> however no one takes this seriously.

[20:08:14] <JPL-Justin> On mission, we use about 2 gigs of ram
[20:08:32] <FD_> 2 Gigs–onboard, you mean?
[20:08:40] <JPL-Justin> NO
[20:08:43] <JPL-Justin> sorry
[20:08:48] <JPL-Justin> 2 gigs on the scientist workstations
[20:09:16] <argv> Justin, is it primary Solaris for scientist workstations?
[20:09:32] <JPL-Justin> No…
[20:09:35] <JPL-Justin> SOlarish used to be used
[20:09:39] <JPL-Justin> a lot, but we mostly use Linux.
[20:10:02] <Chu> Wow, this is huge publicity for Linux.
[20:10:14] <JPL-Justin> Yeah, we use Linux for almost everything.
[20:10:19] <JPL-Justin> A lot of the scientists use OS X though.
[20:10:26] <JPL-Justin> (I use that at home, and when I’m on the go)
[20:10:49] <Hoagland> JPL-Justin: thanks for saving tax dollars, instead of sending them to microsofts vaults.
[20:11:05] <JPL-Justin> Yeah well no one on the team likes MS very much.
[20:11:12] <JPL-Justin> WE use it when we need to but… not more than that.

[20:12:06] <FD_> watch, Jeff’s gonna be a net celebrity soon
[20:12:37] <Ex1le> Jeff is my hero. I’m sending him money.
[20:12:48] <JPL-Justin> Jeff doesn’t need money, I need money!
[20:12:51] <JPL-Justin> I’m a poor college student.
[20:12:53] <JPL-Justin> He’s got a house.
[20:12:56] <MosServ> Amazing. He only has to show up in the channel and people offer Jeff money.
(A little later…)
[20:16:22] <Ex1le> JPL-Jeff: I’m seriously sending you ten dollars.
[20:16:31] <JPL-Jeff> do NOT send me money
[20:16:41] <Chu> Why not?
[20:16:56] <JPL-Jeff> That could get me in trouble. Send money to a charity.
[20:16:38] <jonr_> JPL-Jeff: I am seriously sending you beer
[20:16:55] <FD_> JPL-Jeff: I’ll just pray for your health, howzzat ? :p
[20:17:04] <JPL-Jeff> FD – many thanks

[20:23:54] <selfish> REAL QUESTION: does maestro use real pictures of mars?
[20:23:57] <JPL-Justin> YES
[20:24:07] <JPL-Jeff> selfish – It will soon

[20:25:15] <archi> QUESTION: What are the odds on the “find life” pool?
[20:25:25] <JPL-Justin> I don’t know honestly.

[20:25:28] <nope> Question: Is the rover autonomus in its explorations, or remote controlled?
[20:25:38] <JPL-Justin> The rover is mostly automonous.
[20:25:52] <JPL-Justin> Strategic decisions are made by scientists, but for the most part it decides the precise path to take.
[20:26:06] <JPL-Justin> So the scientists send it a plan sequence, but real time decisions are made onboard.
[20:26:09] <JPL-Justin> Because of the commuincations lag.
[20:26:21] <JPL-Justin> It’s not remoted controlled like an RC car, but it’s also not automous as in Data or HAL.

[20:26:38] <archi> Question: is the rover equipped for self preservation?
[20:27:21] <JPL-Justin> The rover is equipped to handle somewhat dangerous situations
[20:27:36] <JPL-Justin> however it is lkimited in what it can do. It won’t dodge martians etc…

[20:27:29] <Plisken> Question: Exactly what is Spirit doing right now?
[20:27:45] <JPL-Justin> Spirit’s deploying and taking pictures.

[20:28:10] <jonr_> question: is there a relay satellite over the rover? Or does it send the data directly to earth?
[20:28:29] <JPL-Justin> It does both.
[20:28:40] <JPL-Justin> WE have a high priroity uplink from the rover DTE (Direct to Earth)
[20:28:56] <JPL-Justin> and there’s lower priority, highe4tr latency stuff from the orbiters

[20:29:04] <(Nick censored)> what does Maestro do?
[20:29:21] <JPL-Justin> Maestro gives you the planning and analysis tools available to actual mission scientists in a friendly format.
[20:29:37] <JPL-Justin> It allows you to explore mars virtually by looking at downlinked data products, and creating your own virtual missions!

[20:29:31] <jonr_> question: Does the rover buffer the data when he is on the ‘dark side’ from earth? Or does it just wait?
[20:29:50] <JPL-Justin> The rover definately buffers plenty of data.

[20:29:48] <vj> JPL-Justin: How different is control interface of MERs to that of Pathfinder ?
[20:30:02] <JPL-Justin> Pathfinder was run by engineers…
[20:30:09] <JPL-Justin> As I understand it, for pathfinder the process was:
[20:30:15] <JPL-Justin> 1. Scientists figure out what they wantto do
[20:30:18] <JPL-Justin> 2. Scientists tell engineers
[20:30:28] <JPL-Justin> 3. Engineers create command sequency by hand and send it
[20:30:41] <JPL-Justin> The MER sequencing plan is much more ocmplicated, too complicated to go into righ tnow
[20:30:45] <JPL-Justin> Basically the gist is
[20:31:30] <JPL-Justin> 1. Downlinked data in analyzed. 2. Many observations are planned. 3. Observations are proposed and argued over at Science Operations WOrking Group meeting 4. Final sequencing is finished 5. Upload

[20:31:52] <metric> QUESTION: why can’t the rover be operational for years?
[20:32:23] <JPL-Jeff> metric – dust deposition on the solar panels, wear and tear on the vehicle
[20:32:34] <JPL-Jeff> metric – worse and worse telecom
[20:32:44] <metric> JPL-Jeff: use solar-panel wipers.. 😉
[20:33:06] <Plisken> metric: hah, i was just thinking the same thing. it needs solar-panel-wipers with wiper fluid:)
[20:33:17] <abcbooze> Question Why doesn’t NASA use windshield wipers to rid dust off solar panels?
[20:33:47] <JPL-Justin> Answer: You’d be surprised peopl ehave thought about the windshield wipers… the problem is that the component engineering owuld be difficult and it’s not that necessary, and it adds a ton of additional risk.
[20:34:56] <JPL-Justin> it’s possible to shake the entire rover to get dust off, however no one is sure whether or not this will be attempted

[20:33:25] <archi> Question: is the rover’s processor overclocked?
[20:33:52] <JPL-Justin> No the processor isn’t overclocked
[20:33:58] <JPL-Justin> It’s very slow but radiation hardened.
[20:34:02] <archi> Montara22- but couldn’t they overclock it? the cooling is probably good on mars
[20:34:15] <JPL-Justin> archi: don’t tempt fate on a mars mission
[20:34:22] <JPL-Justin> besides CPU time is usually not a big constraint
[20:34:30] <JPL-Justin> though when we do resource analysis we do take that into account

[20:32:45] <Akilla|Sleep> Question: Is there any good source of mars elevation data?
[20:33:04] <JPL-Justin> Answer: Yes there’s a ton of good elevation data

[20:36:59] <Ex1le> Question: What has been the biggest challenge in the Spirit project?
[20:38:25] <JPL-Justin> The biggest challenge for SPIRIT? I’d say getting it started!
[20:38:50] <JPL-Justin> Having talked with the Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, it has been 10 years in the making and got rejected several times.
[20:39:01] <JPL-Justin> It’s really amazing that it’s gone so well… even though we’ve had tons of budget cuts 🙁

[20:38:52] <skillio> question: what are the most important factors to determining the overall length of the mission?
[20:39:37] <JPL-Justin> skillio: mostly it’s power and durability of equipment
[20:40:01] <JPL-Justin> skillio: as long as we have power, we can keep going… although we expect equipment to start failing after 90 days is up, as that’s the required liffetime.

[20:40:14] <Ex1le> Question: Did you, personally, expect this mission to succeed?
[20:41:17] <JPL-Justin> Ex1le: I expected it to be really risky.
[20:41:27] <JPL-Justin> Honestly I’m still worried about a lot, but I feel so much better tonight.

[20:42:05] <Ex1le> Question: Once deployed, what types of data/samples will Spirit take?
[20:43:36] <JPL-Justin> Ex1le: The data is comprised of the following: Telemetry, Images, and Spectra
[20:44:02] <JPL-Justin> For images there are the Front/Rear hazard cameras, the navigational cameras, and the panoramic cameras.
[20:44:34] <JPL-Justin> For spectra there is the Miniture Thermal Emission Spectrometer, the Mossbauer SEpectrometer, and the Alpha Proton Xray Spectrometer.

[20:42:40] <abcbooze> Question What are your positions at NASA?
[20:45:16] <JPL-Justin> abcbooze: I’m a junior developer on the Maestro team.

[20:45:38] <[av]bani> Question: Do you use any data compression on data when transmitting back to earth?
[20:45:49] <JPL-Jeff> bani – yes, lots

[20:47:02] <skillio> question <sorry i know there’s like 300 atm>: was any thought given to waiting until after the first rover mission was successful, before launching the second? didnt you want to learn about the first and apply those lessons to the latter deployment? or was it simply a matter of fitting the window you had to launch both
[20:48:26] <JPL-Justin> I honestly don’t know about what we’ve learned from EDL yet… the EDL reconstruction team is still trying to figure out why it went so well 😉
[20:49:02] <JPL-Justin> skillio: we had a launch window we had to meet… it was the physics of it that restricted us… as for launching two separate missions, that might not be a bad idea if not for the window 🙁
[20:49:32] <skillio> ah, well, it appears that its gonna look great the way it was done, if the sucess continues on this mission 😛

[20:49:22] <Chu> QUESTION: How long has The Spirit been in the making? And how many people have been, or did, work on The Spirit?
[20:50:01] <JPL-Jeff> Spriit has been in the making for 2-3 years, depending on when you start counting.

[20:50:01] <herag> QUETION: will we have 3d image sets to import into maestro from the rover?
[20:50:34] <JPL-Justin> herag: I think we’ll have some 3D data but the resolution won’t be too high, sorry.

[20:50:36] <metric> QUESTION: who decided to make Maestro cross-platform? (thanks BTW)
[20:50:41] <JPL-Justin> Well…
[20:50:47] <JPL-Justin> For the mission we had to make it run on linux/windows.
[20:50:54] <JPL-Justin> This summer as an experiment, I got it to work on Mac OS X.
[20:51:03] <JPL-Justin> I was very surprised how easy it was to get it to work, save for the 3D part…
[20:51:12] <JPL-Justin> WE used java because of its cross platform nature

[20:48:27] <alex_q> QUESTION Is it true that it may take up to 9 days for MER to be up and crawling about?
[20:51:16] <JPL-Jeff> Alex – it will take 9 days to get Spirit off of the lander.

[20:51:31] <nope> Question: Does the rover have any audio capabilities? so we can hear the winds of Mars? Martian crickets chirping at night?
[20:51:38] <JPL-Jeff> nope: No.

[20:54:22] <groz> jeff, will comments to that address about the irc stuff actually go ‘up the food chain’ ?
[20:54:40] <JPL-Jeff> Groz – I will see that they do.

[20:55:19] <alex_q> QUESTION do the public have a say in how the MER mission proceeds, or is this all pretty much decided by acedemics/geologists?
[20:56:29] <JPL-Justin> Answer: The public doesn’t have access to the information necessary to make an informed decision, other than that exploring mars is a good idea.
[20:56:40] <JPL-Justin> I mean, I don’t even know eno8ugh to plan any part of the mission, and I’m on staff 🙂
[20:56:51] <alex_q> LOL JUSTIN .. fair enough

[20:55:50] <metric> QUESTION: where did ya’ll go to school?
[20:57:59] <JPL-Justin> I went to school at Cornell University.

[20:59:51] <DoubleDogDare> JPL-folks: QUESTION: Do you-all use a Linux distribution for your desktops, or just on servers mainly?
[21:00:21] <JPL-Justin> We use linux on most of our desktops.
[21:00:27] <JPL-Justin> I also use OS X on my personal machine
[21:00:27] <[av]bani> to the chagrin of m$ and sco
[21:00:29] <CheeToS> lol
[21:00:31] <[av]bani> 🙂
[21:00:32] <JPL-Justin> and we use windows on a few laptops.
[21:00:36] <JPL-Justin> We use solaris on some of our older machines.
[21:00:44] <JPL-Justin> Basically we use everything, but we tend to prefer linux
[21:00:50] <JPL-Justin> Although I must say I like OS X better 😛
[21:00:55] <JPL-Justin> (no flame wars please)

[21:01:39] <jgk> Question: Can you tell us any specific problems the rover team asked you guys to solve?
[21:01:40] <jgk> Anything memorable, really.
[21:03:48] <JPL-Justin> jgk: sorry. We don’t solve problems for the rover team, we provide software that meets certain specifications.

[21:16:41] <Fooman> Q: How much internal storage do the lander and orbiter have for images before transmission?
[21:17:46] <JPL-Justin> Fooman: I’m not really sure how much storage we have… odyssey usually has 800 megs but that just had a glitch and we’re at 40 righ tnow

[21:18:52] <mr_neutron> JPL-Erik: What kind of clusters do you run?
[21:19:09] <JPL-Erik> HPC Clusters, usually running Rocks
[21:20:00] <mr_neutron> JPL-Erik: Lost me there…I’m used to Sun cluster and Veritas. Is Rocks commercial?
[21:20:33] <JPL-Erik> mr_neutron we have sun based frontends and distro (RH Linux customized) for the compute nodes

[21:21:28] <FD_> Question: any idea of the image format that the rover transfers back?
[21:21:42] <JPL-Justin> The image format is PDS/VICOR
[21:22:06] <JPL-Justin>
[21:22:08] <JPL-Justin> That’s the format.
[21:22:28] <JPL-Justin> Well the format we use for Ground Data SYstems… I’m not srue how the data is encoded from the rover… could be some weird frame system.
[21:22:30] <JPL-Justin> I don’t work wiht that.
[21:23:01] <JPL-Justin> I’m not sure I spelled VICOR right… besdies it’s an internal format
[21:23:03] <JPL-Justin> PDS you will find.

[21:27:36] <Represser> justin – any idea how long the turnaround time will be between the data they recieve and when we see it?
[21:27:58] <JPL-Justin> Repressar: well everything has to be cleared for pbulic release
[21:28:13] <JPL-Justin> as I said before I am not in the public release channel, I help the scientists. I’m sorry 🙁

[21:35:32] <DrVali> But does it play oggs?
[21:35:59] <JPL-Erik> DrVali, repeat after me… The Mars Rover is not an iPod
[21:36:20] <MosServ> JPL-Erik: Could it be converted into an iPod if absolutely necessary?
[21:37:06] <JPL-Erik> MosServ, that’s a negative…it has no headphone port

[22:23:26] <Gunnar> Question: are there “real color” cameras on the rovers? Pictures so far seem to be b/w…?
[22:24:41] <JPL-Justin> The Panoramic Cameras have bandpass filters on them.
[22:24:53] <JPL-Justin> This allows them to take “red only” or “blue only” or “green only” etc images
[22:24:58] <JPL-Justin> that are then composited in computer to make them color

[22:29:32] <djellison> Are the Navcam and Pancam images 8 bits per channel?
[22:29:37] <JPL-Justin> Well
[22:29:40] <JPL-Justin> It’s complicated.
[22:29:44] <JPL-Justin> WE have 8 and 12 bit images
[22:29:52] <JPL-Justin> and the “channels” are really independent images
[22:29:59] <JPL-Justin> but that’s what we get… what you get, not sure

[22:33:41] <IgnoramusMaximus> its too bad that the JPL rovers wont roam madly all over, they could go see whats up with Beagle. It would be a major PR coup.
[22:34:01] <JPL-Justin> IgnoramusMaximus they can’t go that far
[22:34:05] <JPL-Justin> But if they could, tha’td be awesome

[23:03:46] <alex_q> so a lot of redundant stuff for Maestro can be ditched .. do you have software to decide which is useful, or do you have to manually filter out stuff?
[23:04:04] <JPL-Jeff> alex – both

One thought on “Chatting It Up With NASA

  1. Thanks, Jesse. It’s a very useful synopsis of both the first night of talking and what goes on in the channel.

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