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Over Thanksgiving weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the NASA Tweetup for the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity. And I am definitely thankful for this opportunity. Those of you who do not know what a NASA Tweetupis and you tweet, I would highly recommend you check out the website I have linked. It is definitely a very creative and amazing way for an agency to get the word out about their programs. It is beyond the agency just having a twitter account, but it is actively using the masses or your followers who have twitter account to also help with outreach.This was my first NASA Tweetup and participants ranged from K-12 educators, artists, hobby astronomers, entrepreneurs, computer programmers and of course a few engineers. Everyone was a (space) nerd in one way or another, but very few (at least of the people I ran into) were engineers which was a bit surprising to me. But that really goes to show how approachable this program is, scientists are not the only ones who are drawn to this opportunity.

NASA has a range of tweetups from meeting former astronauts to rocket launches that place participants as close as the press gets to be.The most popular of the tweetups were probably those that surrounded the Space Shuttle launches, and sadly STS-135 (the final launch) was is when I first heard about the opportunity. Naturally, as a child who launched 2L bottle rockets and created PVC pipe model rockets stuffed with those single use cardboard rocket motors, I desperately wanted to be picked in order to have an excuse to go down to Cape Canaveral to see the launch of a NASA rocket. But additionally, I specifically choose this tweetup because it was the launch of the Atlas V rocket that would carry the Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity on it’s 9 month trip to Mars.
Curiosity will be the largest rover we have sent to Mars and will have an extraordinary suite of analytical chemistry instruments. Instruments tasked to further explore the minerals on Mars for signs of prior or present life forms. The rover has 80 kg of instrumentation and one specific instrument, the CheMinwill analyze the chemical composition of the planet’s soil and rocks for signs of a past Martian environment that could had supported life.  CheMin is a powder X-ray diffraction instrument also capable of X-ray Fluorescence. ChemMin is using x-rays because minerals have characteristic diffraction patterns and enables us to identify of the crystalline structure of the materials the rover will see. CheMin is about the size of a shoebox, which is amazing as our lab PXRD is the size of a large armoire.  Therefore, I had to ask our guests the question: how did you make it so small?! Here’s how: the samples are vibrated (by a tuning fork) on a platform and are therefore suspended to allow all incident angles to be scanned. Rather than sweeping the incidence angle as we do in our lab PXRD, the sweep comes essentially from the rotation of the sample. Dr. Conrad said that this miniaturization of the instrument was actually very difficult, but it now has been commercialized and a PXRD the size of a suitcase can be purchased!

The highlight of this experience is seeing a rocket launch, but also a wonderful part of the program of a NASATweetup is the opportunity to hear scientists talk about their involvement with the project and to ask questions about being a scientist at NASA. The speakers for the science instrumentation on Curiosity were Pan Conrad (deputy principal investigator, SAM instrument, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) and Ashwin Vasavada (MSL deputy project scientist at JPL). They did a great job presenting the excitement surrounding instrumentation being sent to Mars and the important implications for future Martian explorations in the discoveries. In addition to the amazing PXRD, the cameras and SAM instrumentation are actually able to inhale the martian atmosphere, providing real time, and year-round insight on the thermal, chemical, radiation and solar composition of the environment for future manned spaceflight to Mars. A key point that Dr. Conrad made was to not take the data that we will get back from Curiosity and compare it to what we see on Earth, but to think about how it fits with the data they have on Mars from other missions.

The Altas V successfully launched the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity on November 26, 2011 at 10:02 am. Seeing a rocket launch for the first time was absolutely an amazing experience. What I was thinking at the moment: it is moving a lot slower than I thought nearly 900,000 lbs of thrust would be able to move a rocket. But my favorite was the complete silence until about the time the Atlas V was to hit the clouds. Ah, how slow sound travels. Seeing a launch really is something that you cannot tell someone about, there are not quite words, except, to tell that person: you need to go see one yourself. And if you sign up for a NASA Tweetup, you will be as close as the press.

But most importantly, a NASA tweetup is how you can be involved, it is how you can see what type of science your taxes are going to and then you go out to tell your friends and followers what you saw. As much as I wish I could bring people to my lab to tell them one of the ways that NSF funding is being used, it is not as exciting as space exploration, but the basic science is the same. The software to navigate Curiosity to avoid sand dunes (Spirit’s demise) was not build from scratch but perhaps was based on a graduate student’s thesis. The instrumentation I use in my lab will have a cousin, Curiosity, on Mars, that is built with the same underlying theories for analysis. Support in science leads to new markets, and an example is the suitcase PXRD. Government science does support industry* and will pave way for a successful future. On the second day of the tweetup, Lori Garver (NASA Deputy Administrator) gave the advice: talk to your congressmen. get more congressmen to believe in the investment of science, that missions like this provide data that will better our lives, bring new technologies that will open new markets and help us to prosper.

All images from:

Interesting Links:Sign up for upcoming NASA Tweetups

#MSL #NASATweetup on NASATelevision

Youtube video of, Leland Melvin, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Lori Garver presentation on Why Support Science?
* at the start of the Q/A (about 11:30 min mark) someone asks Lori Garver if NASA supports commercial space flight: basically, yes! NASA does support commercial space flight, and has always.

Official NASA video of the MSL Launch

Another piece of extraordinary instrumentation I did not talk about, the ChemCam:

Animation of Curiosity’s cruise state, entry, descent, landing, and surface operations: