Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts about NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). In this post I describe what I saw during a tour of JPL. In the next post, I’ll summarize the most interesting active missions under JPL’s control and what those will tell us about our universe. In the final post of the series, I’ll look at upcoming missions, including a spacecraft that will go to Europa.

Touring JPL was nerd heaven. At the first stop in the museum, I saw a scale model of Explorer 1, the first satellite successfully launched by the United States of America, which discovered the radiation belts surrounding the Earth.

Left: Scale model of Explorer 1 satellite, including second stage rocket cluster. Right: William Hayward Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun display a full-scale model of Explorer 1 at a crowded news conference in Washington, DC after confirmation the satellite was in orbit (1958). Lower right: NASA depiction of the radiation belts surrounding the Earth.
Left: Scale model of Explorer 1 satellite, including second stage rocket cluster. Right: William Hayward Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun display a full-scale model of Explorer 1 at a crowded news conference in Washington, DC after confirmation the satellite was in orbit (1958). Lower right: NASA depiction of the radiation belts surrounding the Earth.

 

The tour group was led into an auditorium that included a full-scale model of Voyager I (although missing a long magnetometer boom), which made an appearance in the first Star Trek movie.

Voyager 1
Top: Life-size replica of the Voyager spacecraft. Bottom left: Replica of the Golden Record’s cover. Bottom right: The Golden Record replica.

 

The other wing of the museum held scaled down replicas of many of the satellites, probes, and spacecraft responsible for major observations and discoveries over the past 30 years. One of my favorites, Mariner 10, flew by Venus before going into orbit around Mercury.

20160227_094042
Scaled down replica of the Mariner 10 probe.

 

The highlight of the museum visit for me was a moon rock collected during one of the Apollo missions. A piece of the moon–on Earth! ūüôā

A moon rock collected and returned to Earth by NASA's Apollo mission.
A moon rock collected and returned to Earth by NASA’s Apollo mission.

 

The tour brought us to a testing area where duplicates of the Mars rovers are tested. This is where they troubleshoot situations like broken wheels, sand pits, and other hazards that the rovers contend with.

A testing ground for simulating conditions on Mars. (or maybe it's where all the Mars landing footage is faked! j/k)
A testing ground for simulating conditions on Mars. (or maybe it’s where all the Mars landing footage is faked! j/k)

 

The most mind-blowing part of the tour was the visit to¬†JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility. From there, JPL controls the Deep Space Network, an international array of radio antennas that keep track of and communicate with active missions throughout the solar system. The Deep Space Network relies on antennas at Goldstone, near Barstow, California; near Madrid, Spain; and near Canberra, Australia. The spacecraft that send and receive information through the Deep Space Network include:

  • Voyagers 1 and 2, both of which¬†are so far from the sun that we’re starting to get data of interstellar conditions for the first time
  • New Horizons, the probe that recently swung past Pluto and is relaying data that have completely reshaped our view of the planet
  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which relays signals to probes and rovers on Mars
  • Dawn, the first spacecraft to use an ion-drive for propulsion, is ¬†visiting the largest asteroids in between Jupiter and Mars, including Ceres and Vestas
Mission Control at JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility

 

Live streams of data poured through JPL’s networks and we got to see a glimpse of it.

Deep Space Network Data
Top: A representation of the status of each antenna in the Deep Space Network and its connection to spacecraft throughout the solar system. Bottom: A live data feed from each active spacecraft.
Flight Operations
Left: Mission control, including mission clocks for two Martian rovers at center. Right: Depiction of one of the Goldstone 25 antenna’s connection to the Dawn spacecraft.

 

I hope to visit JPL again, and I highly recommend it to anyone in the Los Angeles/Pasadena area. Tours can be booked here. Or you can read all about JPL on their nicely designed website.

Next up: a summary of JPL’s ongoing missions and what they mean for astronomy, planetary science, and cosmology.¬†