You choose, we deliver
If you are interested in this story, you might be interested in others from The Journal Gazette. Go to www.journalgazette.net/newsletter and pick the subjects you care most about. We'll deliver your customized daily news report at 3 a.m. Fort Wayne time, right to your email.

Science & Tech

  • Professors object to FAA restrictions on drone use
      WASHINGTON – University and college professors are complaining that government restrictions on the use of small drones are likely to stifle academic research.
  • Half of obese kids donít know it
    The good news is that after decades of furious growth, obesity rates finally seem to be leveling off in the United States. The bad news is that America’s youth still appear to be dangerously unaware of the problem.
  • Caveís fossil secrets set to be unearthed
    For the first time in three decades, scientists are about to revisit one of North America’s most remarkable troves of ancient fossils:
Advertisement
Also
Do you know Mars?
Mars is set to get its latest visitor Sunday night when NASA’s new robotic rover, named Curiosity, attempts to land there. Mars has been a prime target for space exploration for decades, in part because its climate 3.5 billion years ago is believed to have been warm and wet, like early Earth. Here are five other key points:
About the color: It’s called the red planet because the landscape is stained rusty-red by the iron-rich dust.
Quick weight loss: Its gravity is only 38 percent that of Earth. So if you weigh 150 pounds on Earth, you would weigh 57 pounds on Mars.
Hot and cold: Mars’ temperatures can range from 80 degrees at its equator to minus 199 degrees at its poles.
The air is different: Mars’ atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide with traces of nitrogen and argon. Earth’s atmosphere is a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases.
Longer days: They last 39 minutes longer than a day on Earth.

Red rover, red rover, send jargon right over

– Fascinated by NASA’s latest Mars mission and planning to tune in?

Well, good luck understanding the space agency’s everyday lingo, which resembles a sort of Martian alphabet soup.

In the highly specialized world of spacecraft engineering, there are many moving parts and pieces – not to mention processes. Names and descriptions are often reduced to acronyms and abbreviations, which are faster to string together in a sentence but can end up sounding downright alien.

So if you want to know if MSL will nail the EDL and what it can do on different sols, you have to learn the language.

Even speakers acknowledge the jargon is sometimes jarring.

“It’s kind of our own slang,” explained Michael Watkins, mission manager of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars project set to land on Sunday night. “It’s a shorthand way to talk about these very complicated systems.”

He added: “Even folks from other missions have no idea what we’re talking about.”

Let’s start with the rover’s name. In the halls of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it’s called MSL – short for Mars Science Laboratory. Spacecraft typically have technical names before being rechristened by the public through naming contests sponsored by NASA.

MSL did not become Curiosity until 2009 when a sixth-grader from Kansas proposed the nickname. Still, there are some hard-cores who continue to use the scientific moniker.

Curiosity is loaded with the most sophisticated instruments to study Mars’ environment – with convoluted names to match. “Mastcam” refers to the pair of 2-megapixel color cameras on the rover’s head. “SAM” – short for Sample Analysis at Mars – is the mobile chemistry lab designed to sniff for carbon compounds. “ChemCam” stands for Chemistry and Camera, otherwise known as the rock-zapping laser. And “RAD”? That’s the radiation detector.

Before Curiosity can start science experiments, it must first survive an intense EDL – entry, descent and landing – or as NASA has come to call it: Seven minutes of terror.

Signals are received through the DSN, or Deep Space Network, a worldwide network of antenna dishes that communicates with interplanetary spacecraft. “Nominal” means A-OK.

The dizzying naming system even extends to time. It takes Earth 24 hours to spin on its axis – the definition of a day. Mars spins more slowly than Earth – taking 24 hours and 39 minutes.

To distinguish between Earth and Mars time, a Martian day is called a sol, Latin for “sun.” Yesterday is “yestersol.”

Nowhere will extraterrestrial vocabulary fly faster than in the JPL mission control room on landing day.

If you find it hard to keep up, just look for the cheers – or tears.

Advertisement