Opportunity Sol 358 (Spirit Sol 378)

It's January 24th. Opportunity has been on Mars one year today. Unlike Spirit's birthday, there's little fanfare, just people getting on with the job. And occasionally reminding each other, with the usual subdued wonder: we've been at this a year.[1]

So it's the beginning of Opportunity's second year on Mars, and the end of something else: namely, it's the end of our exploration of the heat shield. ("And there was much rejoicing ....")

I know, I said that last time. But this time, I really mean it. We planned the post-heat-shield drive, but there's one more thing they want us to do before we go. The MI images we got over the weekend looked great (I'm a genius!), but shooting them through the dust cover, as Erickson mandated to protect the instrument in case I screwed up, reduced the contrast. So the EDL team wants us to retake a few of them with the dust cover open. (To my surprise, Erickson agrees to this. I think that's to his surprise as well: "I said 'no' originally" he tells me, "but Squyres argued me around." Which is yet another surprise: the heat shield being primarily of engineering interest, the project has been generally unwilling to subject the rover to any risk over it -- for example, we can't use any of the instruments except the MI.) After that, we'll stow the IDD and drive away, as planned last week.

We're actually damn lucky we got anything at all. Last week, while building the sequences, there was a mix-up about which MI image sequences we were supposed to call. The first version of our IDD sequence used the wrong MI sequence IDs, but we redelivered a newer IDD sequence with the right MI sequence IDs in it. So far, nothing particularly unusual. But somehow, they managed to send the wrong version of the IDD sequence to the spacecraft! (We have software to warn about this, but they somehow managed to overlook the warning. Yeesh.) Happily, the "wrong" MI sequences were already on board, having been left over from some long-ago sol, so the spacecraft was happy -- it took images with a somewhat suboptimal exposure, but at least it took them.

But that was just dumb luck. It could easily have been otherwise: we could have moved the IDD to all the right places, and taken no pictures. Or, if the difference between the two IDD sequences had been something else, arbitrarily bad things could have happened. Lucky, lucky, lucky ....

At least thisol's sequencing is relatively easy. The drive's already in the bag, and the IDD stuff is just a subset of what we did over the weekend, so it's mostly a matter of copying and pasting. It doesn't take me very long to get it done. Which is great, because it leaves time for the Iowa Space Girl.

The Iowa Space Girl is Susan Kurtik's seven-year-old grandniece -- "she's bonkers about space," Susan says.[2] The Iowa Space Girl is also known as "Abigail," and I spend about half an hour showing her and her family around the MER area, letting her look through the 3-D glasses at Mars, letting her play with RSVP, and so on. Kids love RSVP, because it's like a video game -- which was the idea. "Scott got to grow up and get paid to write video games, and then he gets paid to play them," Susan says.[3] Abigail seems to like this idea.

Abigail seems like a great kid -- polite, smart, genuinely interested in space. But Steve Squyres is a big kid, too. On his way past he picks up a pair of the 3-D goggles and peers through them at the heat shield. "Gosh, what a weird-looking thing!" he exclaims. "A crashed spaceship on another planet!"

"Shame it's ours," I say.

He laughs. "Now that's a circumstance under which I'd be willing to use the APXS on it. APXS, MB, everything!"

[Next post: sol 387 (Opportunity sol 366), February 3.]

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. One of the MI images of Opportunity's heat shield. So, this robot goes to another planet, studies the planet a while, and then wanders over to squint at parts of its own wrecked spaceship. OK, so I don't have a flying car; I'm still living in the future.


[1] I'd forgotten about this. For a while there, Opportunity was hogging the birthday glory; the project would wait until Opportunity's landing day to make a big deal out of the anniversary. But the first one was reversed: the big press conferences and such happened around Spirit's birthday. It wasn't until year 5 (2009) that they simply split the difference.

[2] Susan Kurtik hired me to work at JPL. I am endlessly grateful.

[3] True, except for the slanderous claim that I grew up.

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