Tuesday, August 14, 2012

MSL/Curiosity and the Kevin Bacon Game

The above image is a 360-degree, full-resolution panorama from NASA's Curiosity rover, showing the area all around the rover within Gale Crater on Mars. The rover's deck is to the left and far right. The rover's "head" or mast, where the Navigation cameras that took this picture are located, casts a shadow seen near the center. The rim of Gale Crater is to the left, and the base of Mount Sharp is to the center-right. The summit of Mount Sharp will be imaged at a later time. North is at zero degrees, to the left, and the south-southwest is to the middle-right at 193 degrees. The shadow of Curiosity's mast can be seen in the center of the image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I recently learned that and Curiosity and I are tight. Well, not exactly tight. We're close, sort of. I mean, we know people who know people. It all has to do with the Kevin Bacon game. Please allow me to backup and explain...

Aboard NASA's Mars Science Laboratory / Curiosity rover, which launched November 2011 and landed August 10th, are three very cool instruments made by Dunedin, Florida-based company Ocean Optics. The instruments are three model HR2000 high-resolution miniature fiber optic spectrometers and they are used to study soil composition as part of the ChemCam instrument, which sits atop Curiosity's mast.

These three spectrometers will study Martian rock and soil composition using Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS). Each spectrometer is configured to detect elemental signatures over a different wavelength of light: 240-336 nm, 380-470 nm, and 470-850 nm. The use of the three spectrometers simplifies the design and creates redundancy, as many elements under study have spectral lines in more than one of the spectral ranges covered by the three units.

ChemCam will use laser pulses to vaporize thin layers of material from Martian rocks or soil targets up to 9 meters (30 feet) away. It will use the HR2000 spectrometers to identify the types of atoms excited by the beam, and use a built-in telescope to capture detailed images of the area illuminated by the beam. ChemCam will help researchers determine which objects in the area of Curiosity make the best targets to approach and examine in greater detail with the other Curiosity instruments. Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico, is the principal investigator for the ChemCam instrument.

NASA researchers have previously used Ocean Optics equipment for missions on Earth and in space. A custom Ocean Optics spectrometer named ALICE was instrumental in detecting the presence of water ice on the moon during the LCROSS mission (www.nasa.gov/lcross, lcross.arc.nasa.gov/mission.htm). And the company's Jaz spectrometer scaled Mount Everest with a team that included NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski to measure solar irradiance at extreme altitude (www.nasa.gov/astronauts/everest_expedition.html).

But now, as they say, back to me. I was speaking with a friend of mine named Craig MacDougal. Craig has been an amateur astronomer since his early teens and he is an Assistant Coordinator for the Jupiter Section of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (www.alpo-astronomy.org). In a recent conversation, Craig mentioned that he knows two individuals who worked at Ocean Optics. And while these people did not work on the HR2000 spectrometers themselves, they knew the people who did.

That conversation got me thinking about the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, a trivia game based on the concept of the small world phenomenon and rests on the assumption that any individual involved in the Hollywood, California film industry can be linked through his or her film roles to actor Kevin Bacon within six steps. The name of the game is a play on the "six degrees of separation" concept and requires a group of players to try to connect any individual to Kevin Bacon as quickly as possible and in as few links as possible. Six steps would be the maximum to qualify in the game. All of this being understood, I decided to play the game as it applies to me and the Curiosity rover, now on Mars. Here is what I determined.

Degree 1: There is my association to my friend Craig.

Degree 2: There is Craig's association to his two friends who work at Ocean Optics.

Degree 3: There is his friends' associations to coworkers who worked on the three HR2000 spectrometers which were then rugged-ized for the MSL mission.

Degree 4: The three HR2000 spectrometers were installed on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory / Curiosity rover.

Now, if I reason correctly, there are four degrees of separation between me and Curiosity. And, for that matter, five degrees between me and the rest of the MSL mission team. Exciting to think about? You bet! Of any real, material significance? Well, let's just say that this new knowledge, when combined with a dollar, will probably buy me a soft drink refill at my local convenience store. But even so, I think it's pretty darn fun!

To learn more about Ocean Optics, visit www.oceanoptics.com .

The Mars Science Laboratory / Curiosity rover mission is managed for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C., by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena (Caltech). More information about Curiosity is online at www.nasa.gov/msl and mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl . You can follow the mission on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/marscuriosity .

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