MarsRoadtrip Part 5: CSAtweetup

Made it back the next morning only a few minutes late (for which I am rather impressed with myself, running on 2.5 hours sleep and not being able to remember/find what time I was supposed to get there), and settled in for another awesome day of spacey goodness!

We started off with Gilles Leclerc, Director General of Space Exploration, welcoming us and giving an overview of the Canadian Space Agency and what all it’s up to! CSA is a small agency, with around 700 employees and an annual budget of only $250 million. (Curiosity cost about 10 times that!) But – by partnering with other/larger space agencies (Canada is the only non-European cooperating member country of the ESA… Austrialia is probably jealous!), and keeping focused on specific areas of expertise (especially robotics and small science satellites, rather than developing their own launch vehicle), CSA is able to make significant contributions and maintain a major presence in the space industry, maximizing the bang for their buck!

Next, we had a special surprise call-in guest – Astronaut David Saint-Jacques (@Astro_DavidS)! He was actually on vacation with his family, but was kind enough to interrupt his vacation and take some time out to chat with us spacetweeps over Skype! Very nice guy! He’s an engineer, medical doctor, astrophysicist, and commercially licensed pilot, who was selected as part of the 20th Astronaut class in 2009, and is currently stationed in Houston, awaiting his turn in space! When asked what the hardest part of being an astronaut is, he said it was maintaining balance – not totally geeking out over how cool it is and completely losing yourself in your job! I bet! (And he hasn’t even been to space yet! Just wait…) 😀 The best part is the people you work with. 🙂

Then it was tour time! The first stop was the Space Technologies Lab – an area with a bunch of cleanrooms where they develop and assemble small satellites and such (sensitive work that they did not want photographed… tweeting was okay though!) Favorite factoid from this bit of the day was that satellites in Low Earth Orbit can turn themselves using electromagnets and the Earth’s magnetic field! (But satellites in geo-stationary orbits can’t, because they’re too far out and the magnetic field isn’t strong enough out there!)

In the Space and Planetary Sciences Lab, we saw the Earth version of MSL’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS)! (Which, my brain actually absorbed this time, takes in small soil samples and analyzes the contents for evidence of past – or maybe even present – life on Mars!) This version is briefcase-sized, while the one on Curiosity is about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, because the one they sent to space needed to be as compact and lightweight as possible, but without launch restrictions, this only needed to be portable enough for people to carry so they were able to make it larger and more powerful for faster results! (They take it out to test a variety of samples on Earth, to which they’ll compare the results we get from Mars!)

Visiting Research Fellow, Pablo Sobron Sanchez, explains the APXS (Earth edition)!

Curiosity has a limited number of “clean samples” it can take – it only has 24 containers, which can be reused, but residue from earlier tests may contaminate the new sample, giving less accurate results – so they have to be somewhat selective with the samples they take. To decide where they most want to test, they’ll use data from the other MSL instruments and cameras, as well as images we’re already getting from various orbiters. All of those images are actually available on the internet for anyone to look at, and if you’re so inclined, to study and do science with!

Next, we met Operations Engineer Mario Ciaramicoli, in a massive sort of split-level garage-y-type robotics lab with a whole lot going on! The upper part of the room was dominated by a full-scale engineering model of the Canadarm2, which is currently in service on the International Space Station. (Its predecessor served aboard and retired with the space shuttles – Endeavour’s Canadarm recently returned to Canada and is chillin’ in the lobby!)

Canadarm2 is a couple meters longer than the original, has an extra joint and greater rotation in all of its joints, and was designed so that its joint motors and computers and such can be replaced on orbit for much simpler repairs and maintenance. However, the coolest part, to me, is that it doesn’t have one fixed “shoulder” end, with the “hand” opposite – rather, it has identical ends that can both attach to the station or go off and be the working end, or even trade roles back and forth, with the acting “hand” grappling onto the station somewhere else, the “shoulder” releasing and becoming the hand, and so on, to “walk” around the station for greater access! It can also connect with Dextre, the smaller two-armed robot, for more complicated work that would otherwise require an astronaut to go EVA, but can instead be done by the robot, controlled from inside the station!

We got to see the Mission Control room from which Canadarm2 and Dextre operations on ISS are supported, as well as the simulator where all the engineers, astronauts/cosmonauts, and mission/flight controllers who will be involved with using the arm come for training before they can be certified as robotics operators, and go on to more specific training for their particular missions!

A major part of Mario’s job is preparing the new programming for missions… basically every time they use the arm, they have to write a new program to operate the arm! For tasks similar to ones they’ve done before, it’s pretty simple to just update the numbers for component masses and other parameters, but for something totally new, they have to pretty much start from scratch, and it takes months and months of programming and running simulations to verify it will do what they tell it to when they try it for real in space! Craziness!

Our last destination for the morning was the exhibit hall, where they have models of a bunch of Canadian satellites and other projects Canada contributed to. Senior Engineer Marie-Josée Potvin gave us the rundown of all the ones present, and also stuck around to eat lunch with us!

This model of RADARSAT-1 is actually hanging over the main lobby, but there’s another smaller of the same in with the rest!

Tweeps learning about the James Webb Space Telescope

Model of the James Webb Space Telescope

After lunch, it was rover time! We heard from the folks in the Exploration Development and Operations Centre, where they’re working on the infrastructure to monitor/support/control robotic exploration missions from the ground. They decided to go with workstations around the perimeter of the room and a large table in the center, for a more collaboration-friendly layout for the control room than the traditional rows of consoles – you’re monitoring your station, discover something that needs discussion and a decision, so you can just turn around to confer with your team at the table, and then go back and do your thing! (Makes sense to me!)

We paused in the Rover Integration Facility (read: giant rover garage/workshop) on our way outside, and saw a variety of components and rovers, including a Jeep-sized one with seats that can be driven remotely, as a robotic explorer, but could also be used for manned exploration in the future!

Outside, we discovered the Analogue Terrain – a big field of sand and gravel with various inclines and heaps of rocks, approximating a variety of ground conditions similar to those one might encounter on Mars or the moon! And boy were we glad it was a nice day out (gorgeous, in fact), because ROVERS! Two of them were out playing in their big sandbox – okay, engineers with RC controllers were calling the shots, but ROVERS!

They drove them around a while and showed us the nifty things they could do to get around better, and we checked out the mobile version of the remote operations center.

Then, at some point, I look back over and the rovers are coming over to visit! Turned out, they were going to be part of the group for our group picture! We got to check them out up-close-and-personal, and I even got to hug one! (Yes, I’m a nerd. We know this. But ROVERS! For machines, they’re adorable!)

MSL Curiosity CSAtweetup group photo in the Analogue Terrain (Photo credit: CSA)

Eventually we headed back inside to hear about the Artic Expedition that engineering grad student Raymond Francis (@CosmicRaymond) took part in earlier this summer, to determine whether a certain very large hole in the ground on Victoria Island was, in fact, an impact crater! It was an especially exciting and successful expedition, because they not only confirmed that it is and impact crater, but also found it’s basically a really good one (to study), because it has excellent examples of geological features only found in impact craters and… general geological interesting-ness. (My brain was kind of overflowing at this point, so pardon the particulars not quite sticking.) Besides the geologists one would logically send on this sort of expedition, the team also included Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, who is not a geologist – they were training him in the basics of conducting a geological survey (I think… pretty much), so when he’s hypothetically off exploring some other planet, he’ll know what to look for to take photos or samples of that will be interesting for geologists back home to study! Neat!

We ended the day with Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, Director of Space Exploration Development, discussing the future of space exploration in general, and of course Canada’s in particular! The near future is obviously going to be humans sticking to the ISS while we learn more about the effects of living in space long-term, and robots doing the planetary exploration. More long-term, as you might expect, we want to get to Mars, and back to the moon, but in what order, and whether or not to throw a station at the Lagrange Point between Earth and the Moon into the mix or not depends who you ask! I can’t wait to see what happens… 🙂

A timeline/overview chart of the various agencies’ & companies’ planned space exploration missions for the upcoming decade

As we were “leaving” (which bore a striking resemblance to “not leaving,” as we just kept pausing and chatting!) I discovered that @Colin_H_Hart goes to Ursinus College, which is 14 miles from my office! (Plus, he happens to currently living in Cleveland, where I had also just come from.) Funny how that happens… going to another country and meeting someone from basically back home! Small world. 🙂 Turns out we were also staying in the same hotel, and he was car-less, so I gave him a lift back, and he introduced me to a deli he’d discovered around the corner that makes very tasty sandwiches!

Headed back to the hotel, ate, watched the Curiosity press conference and popped into the Twitter for a bit, and then sleep deprivation punched me in the face and I went to bed pretty early. In the morning I packed up, checked out, and began the long drive back.

The long drive back

It was actually only about 45 minutes to the border heading straight south (as opposed to the couple hours meandering east along the Canadian side of the border my route coming from Ohio had taken), but then I sat in traffic/line for probably a solid hour waiting to get through the immigration checkpoint. (There had only been one other car in sight at the little boondocksy crossing I’d come in through!) When I did get up to the booth, I thought it was hilarious that the guy asked exactly the same questions as the one who let me in had – not just the obvious “Where are you from?” and “What are you doing in Canada?” but when I answer that with “Going to an event at the Canadian Space Agency,” they both responded, “Are you some kind of engineer or something?” What? Nobody but engineers ever goes to the CSA? 😛 Guess they never heard of tweetups!

The next few hours were boring, but pretty… way-upstate New York is pretty much mountains and trees and not much else. (Not even proper food at the rest-stops, just vending machines!) Other than being a bit hungry by the time I got back to civilization, it was a nice drive! And then my GPS stopped cooperating just as I got new NYC, so I missed the exit I needed and accidentally took a little detour to the Bronx, and got turned around in some sketchy part of New Jersey trying to find my way back to a road that would take me to PA. (Anywhere in PA, just get me out of Jersey!) Eventually made it back to the Garden State Parkway, which at least went in the general direction of things I know.

After a little while, I saw a reststop had really cheap gas, so I went to stop and fill up… only right as I got on the exit ramp, I felt a thump that made me pretty sure I’d just gotten a flat tire. The service station was right there anyway, so I rolled over at a crawl, and asked the attendant to look at it… turned out it was not only flat, but had shredded! GONE. Lovely.

Now, I’m perfectly capable of changing my own tire, but I’d been driving for about 10 hours at this point and feeling lost in freakin’ Jersey for the last while, so I was at my wit’s end, and the attendant said he’d help me change it if I could wait a few minutes, so I did. It took a little longer than I would have liked, but he came back over, hauled the spare out of its hole in the back of my car… and said he’d be back again in a few more minutes. I was tired, so I figured whatever, and waited. After rather a long while, I wondered where the hell he’d gotten to, and asked one of the other guys pumping gas… who said the guy’d left! Jackass!

None of the rest of them seemed inclined to help me out, and by this point I was too tired and flippin’ angry to think straight, much less figure out the stupid jack, so I tried calling AAA – but apparently New Jersey won’t let them on certain roads, so they had to transfer me to some NJ highway something. I was just about to get them to send somebody out, when some random guy getting gas saw me on the phone and staring at my retard car looking like I wanted to kill something mechanical – “I know that look,” he said – and asked me if I wanted help. I gladly accepted, he swapped the tire-less wheel for the donut in about 3 minutes, made sure it had air, and reminded me not to go too fast on it and to pay it forward. I assured him I wouldn’t and would, respectively, thanked him profusely, finally got that cheap gas, and limped off home at 45mph with Marian Call’s “From Alaska” disc (my new comfort/sanity music) on repeat!

Despite a mildly craptacular ending, it was an awesome trip! I had expected to be pretty exhausted and sick of driving after all that, but seems even 6 days away, 1700 miles, and a blown tire didn’t wear out my roadtrip love!

Thanks to the lovely folks at NASA Glenn and the Canadian Space Agency for your hospitality, and to everybody behind Curiosity and NASA and CSA in general for doing awesome things for us spacetweeps to geek out over! I am so excited for all Curiosity’s pictures and science over the next two (and hopefully several more) years! Happy roving! 🙂

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