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The Little Spaceship That Could Is Lost

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The Mars Global Surveyor is in trouble. The little spaceship was launched to Mars on 7 November 1996. On its 10th birthday its guardians – NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Cal Tech – had a busy and frustrating time.

The Surveyor is the oldest of 5 spacecraft sent to Mars. Originally NASA had planned for it to orbit our little red neighbor for two years. NASA has continued to extend those deadlines. In October of this year it again gave the robot spaceship another extension.

The Mars Global Surveyor has stuck around beaming its information back to Earth, "Hello, Houston," longer than any other human artifact sent to Mars. Therefore, we are not surprised that it sent back "more information about Mars than all earlier missions combined." The persevering little ship has been around long enough to see two more orbiters arrive — Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The Jet Propulsion Lab tells me that
Mars Global Surveyor has found many young gullies apparently cut by flowing water, discovered water-related mineral deposits that became a destination for NASA's Opportunity rover, mapped the planet topographically and examined many potential landing sites on Mars.

On 2 November, Surveyor began a normal maneuver to move its solar panels. One of its motors suffered some error and systems ended up putting it in "safe" mode — "… a pre-programmed state of restricted activity in which it awaits instructions from Earth." Only one weak signal has been heard from it since.

Friday, 17 November, NASA was reported by Yahoo News to have enlisted the aid of one of those two, new orbiters, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the most powerful probe ever sent to mars, in the effort to save Surveyor. Reconnaissance has scanned the area where Surveyor may be in an effort to locate it. Since it seems to be waiting to receive a signal telling it to point one of its redundant transmitters toward Earth, finding it could help get it a clear signal. It will be next week before the scans can be read to see if Surveyor has been found.

JPL's description of "The Little Spaceship That Could" tells of a vehicle that is about 10 feet (3 meters) tall and, when it has its solar panels deployed, it is 40 feet wide. It weighed 2342 pounds when it was launched but has lost some weight over the years, unlike some people I know. It was put together with some spare parts from an earlier spaceship, the Mars Orbiter.

They describe Surveyor as built partly from surplus parts —
to minimize costs, spare units left over from the Mars Observer mission were used in portions of the spacecraft's electronics and for some of the science instruments. The spacecraft design also incorporated new hardware – the radio transmitters, solid-state recorders, propulsion system, and composite material bus structure – and retains many backup and redundant features of the original Mars Observer design in case of failure of critical elements such as the primary processors, recorders or transmitters.

The probable culprit in the loss of our little Surveyor is connected to its antenna and communications system. These are a "1.5-meter (59-inch) diameter high-gain antenna dish that sits at the end of a 2.0 meter (6.6 foot) long boom attached to the propulsion module." One of the two functions is for Surveyor to receive command programs from Earth that tell it what it should be doing for (up to) the next 7 weeks. When she is receiving her command programs, command sequences are delivered at about 500 bits per second.

The antenna system's other use is to transmit data to Earth. It does that at 8.4 ghz on the X-band — that's 84000 on the FM dial. It sends its signal at 25 watts. By the time it gets to this planet the signal has so little juice that, JPL explains, "it would take 30 million years to store enough charge to run a wrist watch for one second."

The receivers are called the Deep Space Network, a set of 112 foot in diameter receivers from Spain, Australia and the Mojave Desert. A big ear to listen for a little ship.

When I was very young, perhaps only 4, long, long ago in a galaxy right here around us, my favorite record (a big, breakable thing that ran at 78 rpm) was The Little Engine That Could. It had a simple book with pictures of the little engine with his determined look and brave action. When the time came that he was needed to save the day, that small engine everyone had laughed at, said "I think I can. I think I can" and then, after a long struggle to get up the hill, he did.

Here we go, 54 years later, and millions of miles away in the cold, dark night of space, a little spaceship is lost. He can't hear his programs from Houston nor say, "Copy that, Houston." The other, newer spaceships are looking for him because he has been such a brave spaceship, paving the way for them and looking after the robot rovers down on Mars.

It is time to forget the jihadists and bomb-makers, the killers and killer-storms and send up a shout of hope for the little spaceship that can. We hope he can. Earth needs a 10 foot tall hero pretty badly right now.

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About hfdratch

  • The antenna system’s other use is to transmit data to Earth. It does that at 8.4 ghz on the X-band — that’s 84000 on the FM dial. It sends its signal at 25 watts. By the time it gets to this planet the signal has so little juice that, JPL explains, “it would take 30 million years to store enough charge to run a wrist watch for one second.”

    I encourage people to try to wrap their minds around this fact.

    I tried. I can’t.

    A wrist watch can run for years on an inexpensive battery little larger than a BB.

    There are almost 32 million seconds in a year.

    32,000,000 (seconds) times, say, three (years) is almost 100 million.

    So, the energy from this signal is one-one hundred millionth of the energy stored in a tiny little watch battery. And that’s if you collected the energy from this signal for 30,000,000 years!

    And yet we have sensors here on Earth, millions of miles away, sensitive enough to pick up this signal…incredible!

    The next time one of my luddite friends talks about the “uselessness” of NASA and the space program, maybe I should forward this article to them…not that they would be able to truly comprehend it any better than I…

  • Rick

    Great article, but Pasadena, not Houston, is “mission control” for unmanned interplanetary flights.

  • Donnie Marler

    Highly enjoyable article, Howard. Well done.

  • duane

    Nice writeup, Howard. Keep up the good work on sci/tech stuff.