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I met my new MOM at ESC Silicon Valley

December 19, 2016

Max the Magnificent-December 19, 2016

I'm afraid I find myself in a bit of a quandary, because I don’t know how to tell my dear old mom that I met my new MOM two weeks ago at ESC Silicon Valley.

It cannot be denied that my birth mother is a remarkable woman. She was born in in 1930 in one of the poorest parts of Sheffield, England. Her mother was deaf and her father was away at sea with the Royal Navy, so during WWII it was her job to listen to the radio and repeat the news to my grandmother, who could lip-read like an Olympic champion.

As part of relaying these wartime broadcasts, my mother taught herself to "speak posh" (you wouldn’t understand a word if she was speaking "Broad Sheffield," which is like "Broad Yorkshire" on steroids, where the Yorkshire dialect has its roots in older languages such as Old English and Old Norse). Based, in part, on her posh accent, coupled with a mind like a steel trap (to this day, her memory is so good that she sometimes remembers things that haven’t even happened yet), she ended up as the personal assistant to a Lord of the Realm and captain of industry and traveled the world.

Eventually, she reincarnated herself as a senior lecturer at college. Still later, after she'd retired, she decided to take a degree at university. Along the way, she had all sorts of adventures, including bouncing Lord Voldemort -- the main antagonist in the Harry Potter series -- on her knee when he was a little lad (see My mother’s twisted relationship with Lord Voldemort).

Having said all this, it also cannot be denied that my mother never headed a team that guided a space probe to the planet Pluto (unless that's one more thing she neglected to tell me and, knowing her as I do, I wouldn’t rule anything out).

The reason I dropped Pluto into the conversation is that one of the Keynote Speakers at ESC Silicon Valley was Alice Bowman, the Mission Operations Manager (MOM) for the New Horizons interplanetary space probe, which performed the first fly-by of the distant dwarf planet on July 14, 2015.


Yours truly and Alice Bowman (I'm the one in the Hawaiian shirt) (Source: Max Maxfield)

I've seen quite a few TV programs about the New Horizons mission, but there's an ineffable something about being in the physical presence of one who was there. Suffice it to say that this was a riveting presentation that held the audience spellbound (one guy with a voice like Scooby-Doo kept on gasping "Yikes!" as the tale unfolded).

Alice started by reminding us of the various interplanetary space probes we've launched, starting with the Mariner 2 mission to Venus in 1962. To determine the approximate distance between the orbits of two planets in AUs (astronomical units), we simply subtract the two planet-Sun distances. For example, Earth orbits at 1 AU from the Sun and Venus orbits at 0.72 AU from the Sun, so the difference between these two distances is 1.00 - 0.72 = 0.28 AU.

Prior to the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, the solar system appeared to comprise two main zones separated by the asteroid belt -- the First (Terrestrial/Rocky Planet) Zone containing Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, and the Second (Giant/Gas Planet) zone containing Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. When Pluto was discovered, it was recognized as being something of an oddity that didn’t quite fit in. The finding of the Kuiper belt in the 1990s led scientists to re-define the architecture of the solar system and start talking about the "Third Zone," which contains comets, larger objects called planetesimals, and small (dwarf) planets like Pluto. The point is that the distance travelled between Earth and Pluto for the New Horizons encounter was approximately 32 AU, and it took the probe 9.5 years to travel this mind-boggling distance.

About the size of a baby grand piano, the New Horizons probe -- which was launched on January 19, 2006 -- boasted the fastest earth departure ever. Travelling at 36,000 miles-per-hour, it shot past the moon after only nine hours. The probe passed Jupiter on Feb. 28, 2007, milking the planet’s gravity to increase its velocity by an additional 9,000 miles-per-hour, thereby shaving three years off its trip to Pluto.

Pluto is so far from earth that it takes radio waves travelling at the speed of light approximately 4.5 hours to make the one-way trip. This means that, in order to send a signal to the probe as it approached Pluto, the team had to point their radio telescope transmitters at the location it would be 4.5 hours in the future. Similarly, in order to detect signals coming from the probe, the receivers had to be pointed where it used to be 4.5 hours in the past.

Obviously, you can’t fly this sort of probe in real-time, so the New Horizons team planned on a 9-day predetermined fly-by sequence and created a command set accordingly. In fact, they created around twenty different command sets in case anything changed, like detecting a new moon or other debris that could potentially damage the craft. A complete 9-day command set consumed about 80% of the space probe's memory and took two hours to upload at 20 kilobits-per-second.

By the time New Horizons reached Pluto, it would be travelling at around 45,000 miles-per-hour, which meant this was a one-shot deal; if anything went wrong there would be no turning back and no "do-overs."

Alice explained how at ~4:30 a.m. on the morning of July 4th, 2015 -- just ten days out from the time of the probe's closest approach -- the team commenced the upload of the selected command set. You could have heard a pin drop when she went on to say how there were five team members in the MOM center at ~1:55 p.m. when, suddenly, all communication with the spacecraft was lost.

Can you imagine how they felt? Thinking about all the time, money, and effort that had been expended on this project and wondering if it would all be for naught. The whole team was called together to discuss what might have gone wrong and what their options were, if any. There were, of course, some scenarios with no solutions, such as if the probe had impacted with a piece of space debris. Other scenarios were slightly more hopeful, such as something initiating a re-boot of the main processor or some occurrence causing the probe to swap out the main processor for its backup. In either case, the probe had been instructed to "call home" as soon as it was fully-functional. Furthermore, if either of these processor-related events had occurred, then the team knew exactly how long it would be before the probe would attempt to reestablish communication.

Alice then brought up a video showing everyone crammed into the MOM center watching the clock tick down to the predicted time. Was the probe still alive, or would its fate forever remain unknown. Alice is wearing a headset. Everyone is holding their breath (both in the MOM center video and in the ESC audience). Then Alice looks up and calmly says "We have a lock on telemetry" and the room goes wild.

I don’t mind telling you that I felt a rush of emotion (a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes) when I heard these words. After the presentation, everyone I chatted to told me they felt the same way. In fact, I'm choking up again as I pen this column. Can you believe that after a ~9.5 year mission travelling ~2,974,585,824 miles, New Horizons hit its point of closest approach 86 seconds early and only ~20 miles off its predicted position, thereby allowing it to return the most amazing pictures of Pluto and its moons one could hope for.


The Rich Color Variations of Pluto (Source: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

I don’t know about you, but knowing that we humans have the ability and the drive to achieve something as incredible as this gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside. So often we focus on the problems that surround us -- most of which we cause for ourselves -- so it's heartwarming and inspiring to be able to contrast all the silly things we do with our wonderful achievements, of which New Horizons is right up there at the top of the pyramid. Of course, that's just my two cents -- what say you?

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