The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 2009 12:43:35 -0800
From: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory <info@jpl.nasa.gov>
To: "sondheim@panix.com" <sondheim@panix.com>
Subject: Socializing on Mars




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Feature 
January 15, 2009

Socializing on Mars

After five groundbreaking years exploring the Red Planet, the
communications engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory pretty much
know what they are getting when another downlink from Spirit or
Opportunity arrives. They know that with a typical transmission comes
about 10 megabits of engineering data, another 4 megabits of science
data, and around 26 megabits of images. They also realize that after the
information is amassed and analyzed by the rovers' science teams that the
most unique, scientifically exciting of that compiled data will be
released via peer-reviewed papers, articles, science briefings and press
releases.

To date, literally thousands of rover images have been analyzed and
discussed in detail. But the rovers have sent back about a
quarter-million images. NASA decided this incongruity could be best
addressed by making every single Mars rover image available to all who
were interested -- and had Internet access.

Access to all that imagery brought the thrill of exploration to people
around the world in a way never envisioned before the rovers began to
roam the Red Planet. Now, the Mars Exploration Rovers have new life on
the likes of "Second Life," "YouTube," online forums like
"Unmannedspaceflight.com," and the social networking site "Facebook."

Like the majority of college students today, Keri Bean knows the ins and
outs of Facebook. But the Texas A&M student did her Earth-based
socializing peers one planet better when she opened a page for the Mars
Rovers. "If I had to chose, I would say I like Spirit better," said the
20 year-old meteorology major from College Station, Texas. "She's had to
work for everything. Opportunity gets a major discovery handed to her by
landing nearly on top of it, but Spirit's had to work hard for everything
she gets."

Bean started her Mars Rovers Facebook page to keep a few of her friends
in the loop on what's happening up there on the Red Planet. She populated
it with rover information and updates when she could find time. To her
surprise, the rovers' friends list began to grow well beyond her goal of
"a few friends." Then one day, she got a new friend that changed
everything.

"Steve Squyres, the scientist in charge of both of the rovers, messaged
me and said he liked my site," said Bean. "I knew then I had to get
serious."

Bean and the Mars Rovers now have almost 1,700 online friends from as far
away as Norway and New Zealand. Her (or their, depending how you look at
it), page includes links to interesting articles about the rovers,
images, sometimes a heads-up about upcoming documentaries and even some
first-person dialogue between Mars' roving twosome.

"I do not have a lot of time this semester, but I try to check it once a
day," said Bean. "It is all about reaching out to people who would
normally not pay attention."

If Bean's Facebook page is for those with short Martian attention spans,
Doug Ellison of the United Kingdom has put together a Web site for those
with an insatiable appetite. Ellison has been interested in the Red
Planet ever since NASA/JPL's first scrappy Mars rover, Pathfinder, roved
the Martian surface back in 1997.

"Mars grabbed me in an unhealthy way," quipped Ellison, the United
Kingdom-based Web czar of unmannedspaceflight.com. "Just on the fringe of
acceptable."

In those days, Ellison was reading everything he could on the journey of
Pathfinder. Then, in February 2004, while Mars rovers Spirit and
Opportunity were still under factory warranty, and after his day job,
Ellison used imaging software to "stitch" his first Mars panorama from a
collection of raw images from the JPL Web site:
(http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/all/).

Like Bean, Ellison had "no ambition or expectation" other than impressing
himself and a few friends. But then a few more friends took an interest
in his nascent Web site, and then a few more. Ellison's site --
unmannedspaceflight.com -- was slowly being colonized with people with a
serious jonesing for all things deep in deep space exploration.

"Our membership includes a care worker for the elderly here in the U.K.
to a teacher in North Wales to a government employee in California," said
Ellison. "In London, I recently met for the first time someone I had
known through the Web site for four years. There were no "getting to know
you" pleasantries. Straight off the bat it was right into a detailed,
in-depth, insightful discussion about something ridiculously
space-geeky."

Online discussions of spacecraft and mission science are only a small
part of unmannedspaceflight.com's allure to the truly space geeky. The
majority of the site, and its appeal, is dedicated to those stark and
beautiful and sometimes puzzling images coming down from Spirit and
Opportunity each and every day.

"Our members share results from stitching together rover images and
working with those images," said Ellison. "Say Opportunity does a long
drive. We download those pictures from the rover Web site. Somebody will
make a mosaic from the imagery taken at the end of the drive. Somebody
else will keep the route map up to date to show where Opportunity has
been. Somebody else will then stitch together the next mosaic and have
the full mosaic all together and then keep track of what the following
day's activities are going to be."

All this pro-bono, unofficial fine-tuning of rover imagery by the members
of the unmannedspaceflight.com forum has been recognized by some very
official members of the aerospace and science media. Their work has made
the cover of Aviation Week and Space Technology and Spaceflight and even
been featured in NASA's own "Astronomy Picture of the Day" Web site:
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/.

As proud as Ellison is of his site's contributions to promoting the
rovers and their stories, he is just as proud about how they can band
together to police some of the more inimitable Mars storylines. With over
1,700 forum contributors surfing the internet, Mars stories that seem a
little -- or a lot -- out of whack, are quickly identified. Like the one
where numerous major media outlets began discussing the possibility of a
Martian Sasquatch making an unscheduled appearance in a Spirit image.

"We took the story and quickly ripped it apart just by using the facts,"
said Ellison. "Some members worked out how far the "Sasquatch" was from
the rover when the image was taken and calculated it was about the size
of a packet of cigarettes. One of our posters did a brilliant job of
taking the mosaic that the image came from and demonstrating how so many
of the rocks in it could appear to look like something else."

Of course, not all Mars rover imagery that makes its way into the public
consciousness is meant to be taken seriously (we think). Like Madison
Avenue's pitch for an adult beverage that puts a new angle on the search
for life in our solar system -- available for viewing on YouTube at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_iPvUWyzhE. Or a brace of commercials
where both Mars rovers and their mission controllers meet their
intellectual superiors on the Martian surface, also available for viewing
on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvY9vMAMxc4and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYzM1M1X790&feature=PlayList&p=74F444229EB256
C3&playnext=1&index=98 . Or the hilarious "Mars: 2020: Springtime"
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjiGH9QNiU0 ) where multiple aspiring
Mars landers meet an ignominious fate, much to the chagrin of local
residents.

"Like any travel adventure, a big part of the fun is sharing the
experience with family and friends back home," said John Callas, Mars
Exploration Rover project manager at JPL. "For five years now, it has
been very rewarding to see the fascination -- and the love -- for the
rovers that runs deep and knows no international boundaries. And as many
ways as we can find to share the experience of exploring Mars, we now
know that many out in the general public will find even more ways to
enrich the whole experience for everyone."

The story could end here, but this is about how those outside of NASA
have managed to place Mars within their own sphere of influence. So in
conclusion, the words of someone who took Mars and ran with it.

"People like me get to see a little bit of Mars that no one has ever seen
before," said Ellison. "The downlink of the imagery from the rovers is an
entirely automated process. So, it might be 2 a.m. in Pasadena (home of
JPL) when images come down but it is lunchtime here. I can see the images
before the scientists do. To be able to ride along every single day on
that adventure, sometimes you have to kind of shake your head in
disbelief that you are seeing something that nobody has ever seen
before."

For more information about NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers, visit us on
the web at: http://marsrovers.nasa.gov/home/ .



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