Yesterday I had an amazing experience – I attended a tweetup at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. (A tweetup is a meeting of Twitter users.) The tweetup was organized by JPL and limited to a certain number of participants (in this case about 110 people) who were fortunate enough to be chosen randomly to participate in this event. When I was selected I knew I was lucky but I didn't really know how lucky – the tweetup was just fantastic! Why? Primarily because of the people. Everyone involved – organizers, speakers, engineers, scientists, project managers, graphic designers, visualization producers, rover drivers, graphics programmers, social networking communicators, you name it – had an incredible passion and enthusiasm for their job and for the space program in general. We as a society may take the accomplishments of these people for granted from time-to-time but we shouldn't. They accomplish amazing things and we should all be very proud.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is currently managing 17 active missions and 9 instruments. The basic format of the tweetup consisted of a series of presentations about current and upcoming missions as well as tours of various facilities at JPL. Specifically, our agenda included:
- Registration and hands-on demos with Bill Allen (design engineer) and Dan Goods (visual strategist). This was really fun. Each table had a spacecraft component or piece of hardware as a centerpiece and your could ask Bill or Dan questions about the item in question. Our table had a parachute support structure for the Mars Curiosity Rover.
- Introduction and Overview by Veronica McGregor (@VeronicaMcG), Stephanie Smith (@Stephist), Courtney O'Connor (@CourtOConnor) and Stephanie Schierholz (@NASA). All four of these women deserve a huge thank you for their tireless work organizing the tweetup. They made the event truly memorable and worthwhile.
- Dawn mission (@NASA_Dawn) by Marc Rayman (chief engineer). The Dawn Mission will visit two asteroids – Vesta and Ceres. In fact, it will be the first spacecraft ever to orbit two solar system bodies. Dawn will help scientists to understand more about the early solar system and how it was formed.
- Voyager mission by Suzy Dodd (project manager). As most of you probably know, both Voyager spacecraft still continue to operate 33 years after their launch. However, you may not know that the Voyager mission continues to make new discoveries. Voyager is currently studying the heliosphere and both spacecraft have enough power to last until 2020 or maybe even 2025.
- Oceans, climate and the upcoming launch of Aquarius by Josh Willis (oceanographer). Yes, you read that right, JPL does employ oceanographers and the Aquarius mission will measure sea surface salinity and provide valuable data help us study climate change.
- Tour #1 – Earth Science Center, JPL museum and 3-D pictures on Mars. This tour was very interesting. At the Earth Science Center we saw a 3-D movie about NASA's missions in orbit around the earth. The JPL museum focused on models of various spacecraft – some large models and some small models. The most impressive was a life size version of the Galileo spacecraft. Finally, we all had 3-D pictures taken on Mars. (Well, not really Mars…)
- Lunch We had the opportunity to pre-order sandwiches prior to our visit. The sandwiches were fine but I think most of us enjoyed the brownies more.
- Group photo. We actually took two group photos. The first was a traditional group photo. The second recreated an image taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. The image is called the "Everest Pan" and it is a 360 degree panorama made up of 81 separate images. You can see both group photos here (look for the photos titled "NASAJPL Tweetup — Monday, June 6").
- Juno Mission (@NASAJuno) to Jupiter by Steve Levin (project scientist). The Juno mission will launch in August 2011 and arrive at Jupiter in July 2016. Juno's scientific payload includes a number of instruments that will provide information about Jupiter itself and help us understand how solar systems form.
- GAVRT – Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope also by Steve Levin. GAVRT is a partnership between NASA, JPL and The Lewis Center for Educational Research in Apple Valley California. In the 2009-2010 school year 7,089 students ran GAVRT telescopes and collected real, useful radio astronomy data. Those students were from 50 schools in 16 US states, Puerto Rico and 3 foreign countries.
- GRAIL mission by Gene Fahnestock and Amanda Briden (mission engineers). The GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) mission consists of two spacecraft that are both going to the Moon. Once there, they will be used to provide a gravitational map of the Moon.
- SOFIA mission (@SOFIAtelescope) by Eric Becklin (chief science advisor). SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) consists of a modified Boeing 747SP plane fitted with a 2.5 meter reflecting telescope. Essentially, it is a flying observatory. The observatory operates from 39,000 ft to 45,000 ft and was designed for a 20 year lifetime. There is an educators section on the plane and so far six teachers have flown on SOFIA.
- Near Earth Objects (@AsteroidWatch) – Don Yeomans (manager). The Near Earth Object Program monitors asteroids with the goal of identifying asteroids that may impact the Earth. At any point in time they have about 150 objects on their web page including several dozen that can't be ruled out for earth impact but at this time there are none that we know will impact our planet.
- Eyes on the Solar System (@NASA_Eyes) – Doug Ellison (visualization producer). This presentation featured two web sites: Eyes on the Earth 3D and Eyes on the Solar System. Both sites are awesome. Eyes on the Solar System is new and is still a beta release so there may be some "issues" but you should really give them both a try.
- Imagine Mars by David Delgado (project lead). This was a very interesting and inspirational presentation on an outreach project in Chicago where a group of students were tasked with imagining life on Mars and how to build a community.
- Tour #2 – Spacecraft Assembly Facility (@MarsCuriosity) / Mars In-Situ Lab / Deep Space Network Mission Control. This tour was just wonderful. Our group went to the Deep Space Network Mission Control first and really this was one of the highlights of the day for me. It was a dream-come-true to see the location – and some of the people – in charge of communicating with the various missions and instruments managed by JPL. The Mars In-Situ Lab was our second stop. It has duplicates of the Mars rovers that can be used to identify problems and test potential solutions as well as duplicate parts for the new Curiosity rover. Finally, we finished with a chance to see the Spacecraft Assembly building where Curiosity is being assembled and tested. I think that was the primary highlight for most people.
I have included some images from the tweetup below. I hope you enjoy them! You can click on any image to see a larger version.
The program portion of the tweetup was held in the von Karmen auditorium. This image shows a portion of the room. The spacecraft in the background in a full-size mockup of the Voyager spacecraft:
As I said above, one of the highlights of the day for me was our visit to the Deep Space Network Mission Control. This is what it looks like:
This building houses the Mars Science Laboratory In-Situ Lab:
This image shows part of the in-situ lab. The objects in the image are duplicates of various components on Curiosity:
This image shows another part of the in-situ lab with duplicate rovers:
This image shows the Spacecraft Assembly Facility for the Mars Curiosity rover. The object in the center of the picture on the blue flooring is the Curiosity rover itself. To the right of Curiosity is the actual spacecraft which will protect the rover. You can find more information on the Mars Science Laboratory here: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/
This image shows a close up of the engineers working on Curiosity: