Mars Science Laboratory + Curiosity Rover: Interview with NASA JPL’s Ashwin Vasavada

Video link: An artist’s animation of how MSL and Curiosity Rover will land on Mars. Courtesy NASA JPL.

This week, Boing Boing visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a peek inside the clean room where NASA’s next Mars rover, Curiosity, and other components of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft (MSL) have been built for launch in late 2011 from Florida. Our big photo gallery with first-ever media access for “hands-on” images is here. Spacecraft assembly and testing specialists showed Boing Boing the rover and the other spacecraft components, including the descent stage “sky crane.” Shipment from the clean room to Florida is scheduled to begin within the next two months, with launch scheduled for late 2011 and landing on Mars in mid-2012.

Xeni spoke with Ashwin Vasavada, Deputy Project Scientist at JPL for the MSL mission, to understand more about how MSL works and what its creators hope to accomplish, how one scores a job designing interplanetary explorer robots, and how this updated Mars rover is (or is not) like an iPad.


Xeni Jardin, Boing Boing: So, the MSL and Curiosity unveiling this week represents a big milestone for you folks.

people-645.jpg Ashwin Vasavada, NASA JPL: Right. The rover is almost complete. We’ve been working on for several years now, it has all come together and works great and we’re putting the final touches on.

BB: So as I understand it, Curiosity will have a lot more science gathering capability than either Spirit or Opportunity.

Ashwin Vasavada: Yes. You can think of it as having nearly everything that Spirit and Opportunity had in the sense that it’s a rover capable of driving over some pretty rough terrain, have cameras to look around at the landscape, had some instruments on the end of a robotic arm to look at rocks up-close and do some chemical analysis up-close on the rock. But in addition to that, it has a major new capability of being able to take samples of rocks and soils, and analyze those samples in instruments on board the rover itself.

BB: So much of the science and the public interest around Mars expeditions has been — is there water on Mars, with the thought being that this would mean life on Mars. How does this change that question?

Ashwin Vasavada: Well, that definitely is the kind of overarching question in Mars exploration, is there life on Mars today? Was there ever life on Mars in the past? As we’ve tried to answer that question over the past two decades, we realized it’s a pretty difficult question to answer. Not only do you need very sophisticated instruments to be able to detect microbial life, but that may not be the kind of life that we’re used to on Earth.

But you also have to know a lot about Mars itself as a planet and where you might want to look for life, where the sort of environmental niches are on Mars. What the Mars Science Laboratory aims to do is not detect life directly, but ask those questions about the environment on Mars, and specifically early Mars, a period for which there’s a lot of evidence that there were rivers and lakes and a much more kind of a life-friendly environment. So we’re going to go to a place that dates back from Mars’ early history, maybe three billion, four billion years ago and try to detect whether that environment at that time was an environment that could have supported life.

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Flying wing to wing with a spaceship: Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo + SpaceShipTwo at Virgin America’s new SFO Terminal

This morning I got up early, packed my bag and headed to the San Francisco International airport (SFO) to attend the opening of Virgin America’s new Terminal 2 (T2). I was expecting Sir Richard Branson to be there, and I had been told to keep an eye out for some appearance from some element of Virgin’s Galactic’s program, but I had no idea what I was in for.

I pretty quickly found out I was in for this:

Shortly before boarding the plane, one of Virgin’s PR people announced that we would be making a 20 minute flight over San Francisco, rendezvousing with White Knight 2 and Spaceship 2 inflight, then landing in parallel with the spacecraft.

[Video Link]

After that, I was just in shock. I did what I could to keep myself collected, which was not an easy task. This was just totally unexpected and amazing. At times, the spaceship was only a couple hundred feet away from us.

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NASA Mars Science Laboratory + Curiosity Rover: first look (photo gallery)


[photo, above: MSL’s descent stage, which files the rover down to Mars’ surface using eight rockets, and lowers it on a tether for landing. The orange spheres are propellant tanks.]

This week, Boing Boing was invited to visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the first and only opportunity for media to enter the Pasadena, CA clean room where NASA’s next Mars rover, Curiosity, and other components of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft have been built for launch in late 2011 from Florida.

Shipment from the clean room to Florida will begin next month. Curiosity rover recently completed tests under simulated space and Mars-surface environmental conditions in another building and is back in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for other tests. Spacecraft assembly and testing specialists showed Boing Boing the rover and the other spacecraft components, including the descent stage “sky crane.”

Photographer Joseph Linaschke visited on behalf of Boing Boing (he donned a bunny suit for the occasion) and shot this series of photos. More below.

Captions for Boing Boing by Ashwin Vasavada, a scientist with the NASA JPL MSL program.

[photo, above: MSL’s 4.5-meter aeroshell that encapsulates the rover and descent stage during cruise to Mars and its entry into Mars’ upper atmosphere. The upper cage will hold the parachute.]

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CWA: Three things I learned from a World Bank transportation expert

CWA is the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now in it’s 63rd year, the conference brings together scientists, politicians, activists, journalists, artists, and more for a week of fascinating conversations. It’s free, and open to the public. Think of CWA as the democratic version of TEDtalks. I’m at the conference all this week and will be posting and tweeting about some of the interesting things that I learn.


On Tuesday, I spoke on a panel about sustainable transportation. I’m currently writing a book about the future of energy … but it’s about the future of energy in the United States. So, out of whole panel, I learned the most new information from Arturo Ardila-Gomez, an urban transportation specialist with the World Bank, who focuses on public transportation initiatives in Central and South America. I was able to take some hasty notes from the speakers’ table, and have three particularly fascinating facts from him to share.

• Colombia is one of the first countries in the world to have a mass transit system organized and financed at the national level. Six Colombian cities have met the criteria for development, which is primarily paid for out of the national-level tax pool. These systems primarily focus on bus rapid transit—a system that uses dedicated bus lanes and other efficiency measures to get the benefits of metro train lines and subways, without the higher cost.

• Free public transit doesn’t seem to actually increase ridership, or decrease car use, very much. In fact, the best way to get the most car owners onto mass transit—which, in the case of Colombia, means getting wealthier people onto mass transit—is to promote higher priced, “premium” transit services. The only problem: Those projects can go awry if wealthy college students start using the premium transit. When that happens, car owners started to think, “Oh, this isn’t for me,” and went back to driving.

• Public transportation projects in Central and South America are often severely hampered by what Ardila-Gomez calls “Not On My Road Space”—the four-wheeled answer to NIMBYism. In fact, single-issue political parties, based solely around preventing restricted bus lanes from impinging on car space, have won elections. But there are ways around NOMRS. Remember, NIMBY can be counteracted if all the stakeholders feel like they’re being included in the planning process. Same thing here. In Leon, Mexico, for instance, planners succeeded in designating an entire 6-block stretch of a narrow, historic street bus-rapid-transit only. They did it, Ardila-Gomez says, by consulting extensively with car owners and users, as well as with the people who wanted better bus service.

Image: Highway traffic in Bogotá, Colombia. The empty lanes are designated bus rapid transit routes. Some rights reserved by Edgar Zuniga Jr.

CWA: Two interesting perspectives on Islam and polygamy

CWA is the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now in it’s 63rd year, the conference brings together scientists, politicians, activists, journalists, artists, and more for a week of fascinating conversations. It’s free, and open to the public. Think of CWA as the democratic version of TEDtalks. I’m at the conference all this week and will be posting and tweeting about some of the interesting things that I learn.


On Tuesday at the Conference on World Affairs, I watched a panel about Sharia Law. I’m indulging my inner cultural anthropologist and trying to attend panels outside my areas of work. (Also, I keep ending up speaking on panels during the same time slot as the science-centric panels I’d like to watch.)

The three speakers—Tricia DeGennaro, a political scientist and mid-east expert with the World Policy Institute; Pakistani geopolitics researcher Azmat Hassan; and Oberlin College Islamic studies professor Mohammad Mahallati—all focused on the aspects of Sharia Law that aren’t well-understood or talked about in the West.

Namely, the fact that Sharia Law isn’t really one monolithic thing. What the concept of “Sharia” means, what the laws are, who practices it, even whether it’s enshrined in civil law at all, or simply followed on a personal household-by-household basis—the speakers said it all varies from place to place and from time period to time period.

In modern Iran, women are stoned to death in the name of Sharia Law. But the same law was responsible for granting women rights that were, in historic times, unprecedented—such as the right to own property. In one place, Sharia Law are government-mandated policies that restrict personal freedom. In another place, Sharia has nothing to with the government, and is about how individuals choose to define their relationship with their god. There’s a lot of irony here. And a lot of contradictory beliefs about what Sharia Law is, which, primarily, boil down to differences in local culture and context.

One part of Sharia Law that you’re probably familiar with—it allows a Muslim man to have up to four wives. Azmat Hassan and Mohammad Mahallati offered two different ideas of what this law really means. The differences between their interpretations—and between the way most Westerners understand it—are a great example of how diverse Sharia really is.

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CWA: Your language is your worldview

CWA is the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now in it’s 63rd year, the conference brings together scientists, politicians, activists, journalists, artists, and more for a week of fascinating conversations. It’s free, and open to the public. Think of CWA as the democratic version of TEDtalks. I’m at the conference all this week and will be posting about some of the interesting things that I learn.

sign language.jpg

In English, we use “I am” statements to describe our current biological state, things that are happening to us, or events that we are experiencing. We say, “I am hungry.” We say, “I am dying.”

But that’s not how it works in Irish. Yesterday, during a panel called There’s Perception, and Then There’s Reality, Irish storyteller Clare Murphy talked briefly about how the language you speak alters the way that you perceive the world. The Irish equivalents of “I am hungry” and “I am dying”, for example, would literally translate into English as, “Hunger is upon me” and “Death is beside me.”

I was a little disappointed that this topic wasn’t explored further during the panel session, but the cool thing about the Conference on World Affairs is that the conversations I have outside the panels are every bit as interesting as the official discussions.

Over the course of the day on Monday, I spoke with several people—panelists, as well as conference volunteers and organizers—about the links between language and worldview. In one of those conversations, Emily Gunther, a conference volunteer and sign language interpreter, told me about some of the ways that Deaf culture and American Sign Language intertwine.

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Lies in London

Lies in London

By Laurie Penny

Demonstrators sit down on Piccadilly during a protest organised by the Trades Union Congress, in central London. Photo: Paul Hackett / Reuters

What went wrong?

As the dust settles and the slogans are scrubbed off the walls of Fortnum and Mason, that’s the question the entire British Left is asking itself about the events of March the 26th. What went wrong? Where do we go from here? And most importantly, who do we blame?

That last part is easy: we blame it on the kids. The story currently being spun by the police, by parties in government, and by most of the press is that an otherwise successful mass demonstration was ruined by disgusting little vandals with hate in their hearts. That mindless acts of violence were perpetrated by a small, hardcore group of hooligans calling themselves ‘the black bloc’, who trashed banks and businesses at random and attacked the police without provocation. That their behaviour undermined and discredited the half-million citizens who marched to the rally point in Hyde Park. That it was a major own goal for the Left in this time of crisis.

That assessment is incorrect on nearly every level. Unfortunately, the handful of reporters, including myself, who dared to produce accounts of the day that run counter to the mainstream consensus, have been savagely attacked. We have been called thugs, liars and terrorists for having the temerity to put on record the police brutality that some of us observed and experienced in Trafalgar square. We have faced down attempts to bully and threaten us into retracting our testimonies.

Ben, 21, was struck on the head during marches in London.

I feel obligated to restate that the accepted public narrative about the events in London on March the 26th is factually incorrect on several important counts. In the first instance, there were not a ‘few hundred’ dedicated ‘criminals’ on Oxford Street and in Picadilly on Saturday, but thousands and thousands of people, mostly under thirty and unaffiliated, many of whom had come straight from flag-waving and banner-holding on the main march through Whitehall to join in with the peaceful actions planned in central London. These actions had been organised by the campaigning group UKUncut. Some of them, such as the store occupations, were potentially unlawful- but they were peaceful and politically motivated, like all of UKUncut’s previous projects.

Secondly, the ‘black bloc’ – a phrase that will undoubtedly be used to terrify wavering tabloid readers for years to come – is not an organisation, but a tactic. It is a tactic used, rightly or wrongly, to facilitate the sort of civil disobedience that becomes attractive to the young and the desperate when every polite model of political expression has let them down. Although there were a small number of genuinely violent agitators in attendance on Saturday, most of them middle aged, drunk and uninterested in the main protest, a great many of the young people who chose to mask up and wear black in order to commit acts of civil disobedience had never done anything of the kind before.

Those young people came from all over the country. They were students, schoolkids, workers and union members. Nine months ago, many of them were political interns, members of the Labour party or volunteers for the Liberal Democrats. Nine months ago, many of them still believed, however naively, that the democratic process might deliver real change. Now a new spirit of youthful unrest has been born into an ugly and uncomprehending political reality. A generation has been radicalised by the betrayal of their modest request for a fair future, and by repeated experiences of police brutality against those who chose to resist.

Those young people, with their energy and their idealism, briefly looked set to capture the hearts and minds of the nation. Following the events of march the 26th, former sympathisers in the Labour movement and on the liberal left are now falling over themselves to disown Britain’s disaffected youth.

Facing lazy calls to ‘condemn the violence’ or be held complicit in the media backlash, most of the centre-left has condemned, and condemned, and condemned. They have paused only to blame one another for ever entertaining these ‘kids’ and their politics. They have dismissed the angry young people of this country without actually asking themselves how it came to this.

That dismissal cannot be allowed to continue without serious unpacking. Ultimately, it is not these young people who have let down the Labour movement – it is the Labour movement and the Labour party in particular that has let down the young, the poor and the desperate, not once but repeatedly, failing to stand behind their demands for change, failing to offer any alternative to the cuts other than its own re-election on a platform of slightly mitigated austerity. We should not be surprised that so many thousands couldn’t be bothered to listen to Ed Miliband speak, and went to Oxford Street instead to do some direct action.

An injury suffered by Ben, 21, is treated by a medic during marches in London.

Then there’s the third misconception. The ‘violence’ enacted upon the defenceless shopfronts of major financial fiefdoms may have looked terrifying and uncontrolled on camera, but it was far from mindless. These targets were not chosen at random. British banks and major tax-avoiding companies were attacked because these companies are seen by large swathes of the public as being responsible for the banking crisis and for subsequent ideological decisions on the part of the current government to mortgage healthcare, welfare and education. In the rush, Spanish banking giant Santander was also vandalised – and we need to be asking ourselves just what has made our nation’s children so very upset with world finance that they believe any bank is fair game.

Nobody’s children are at risk from this sort of political ‘violence’. Many children were, in fact, part of the protest, singing and dancing on Oxford street or carried on the shoulders of their parents to watch UKUncut’s comedy gig in Soho square. There are serious problems with the way in which the press chooses to discuss ‘violence’ in relation to the protests, and chief amongst those problems is the way in which the violence done to private property is now considered morally equivalent to physical violence against human beings.

It’s the second sort of violence that really does put people’s children at risk, and it’s that sort of violence that I saw dispensed without mercy by police on the bodies of Saturday’s young protesters, the vast majority of whom were engaged in peaceful civil disobedience, almost a hundred of whom were hospitalised for their trouble, with broken limbs and streaming head-wounds.

“The police tried to kettle us outside Fortnum and Mason, and fearing for the safety of the crowd in case of a crush, some of us formed a line in front of the police,” says Ben, 21, whose face is swollen and covered bloody cuts. “This was passive resistance. Our arms were interlocked and we were clearly no threat to the police. Without provocation, an officer punched me six times in the face, hit me three times on the head with the edge of a riot shield, kicked me ten times in the shins and three times in the groin.

“I could not move or defend myself, so I bent my head to shield myself from his blows; it was only when I saw the blood running down my tshirt that I realised how badly I’d been hurt.

‘They were kicking people on the ground and dragging them away to be arrested. That was after blocking us inside the store ‘for our own safety’ and promising we would be allowed to leave peacefully,” says one member of UKUncut who was involved in the quiet sit-in inside Fortnum and Mason. “We were handcuffed and taken to cells across London, made to strip to our underwear and given white paper jumpsuits to wear.

“I was left for eighteen hours without food and woken up repeatedly, once for DNA swabs and fingerprints. It felt like they were trying to scare me away from peaceful protest, treating me like a faceless terrorist when I’m just an ordinary citizen standing up for what I believe in.”

Commentators are not wrong in calling march the 26th a loss for the Left. It is unfair, however, to blame that loss on the thousands of young people who chose to demonstrate outside the approved march route- although undoubtedly mistakes were made by organising parties in picking targets and anticipating the size and energy of attendance. The implication that the day would have been a success had everyone just played by the rules is a vastly disingenuous statement unworthy of the many respected liberal commentators who have made it.

After the event, Vince Cable released a statement to the effect that the March for the Alternative is to have no impact whatsoever on the speed and savagery of public spending cuts. The speed with which the statement was released strongly implies that it had been written before the first protestor had got on the coach. What ‘ruined the day’ was not young people committing acts of civil disobedience and spoiling it for everyone else. What ‘ruined the day’, if the day really was ruined, was the state’s determination to ignore the weight of public opposition to its savage programme of spending cuts.

This is not to imply that the march was a waste of time, nor that those who marched were wrong to do so. Not everyone feels able to risk their job in order to occupy a bank. What the march and its aftermath reveal, however, is that the model of opposition and public mobilisation offered by the unions and the Labour party is totally inadequate to the task at hand, and alienating for a great deal of workers and families , as well as the many thousands of people who are already too desperate to protest quietly and obediently.

Marching from A to B to voice vague objections to government spending plans, marching behind Labour and union leaders who fail entirely to offer a coherent alternative, is no longer a sufficient response to these cuts. It is not sufficient because this government, like the previous government, is not at all worried by the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people marching from A to B. They are worried about the prospect of a truly popular people’s uprising. They are worried about losing the ideological argument over the necessity of destroying the welfare state. They are worried by the prospect of a run on the banks engineered by digital people power, as just occurred in Holland, and they are worried about the prospect of a general strike. It’s safe to say that the government has a lot less to worry about this week than it did last week- and activists, anarchists, unions and the Labour movement all need to be asking ourselves why.

Police confront demonstrators at a march near Picadilly Circus in London.

This government isn’t scared of mass vandalism. The public, however, is – and that is precisely why fistfuls of images of young people in masks smashing up the Ritz and throwing smoke bombs have been tossed at our screens for five days now. The state requires us to be fearful so that it can acquire our consent for its spending cuts, and the public fears disorder even more than it fears mass unemployment and the decimaton of public services. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the images of officers of the law assaulting unarmed young people, and the images of riot cops arresting an entirely peaceful protest group on orders which are rumoured to have come right from the top, have largely been been overlooked or dismissed.

Meanwhile, UKUncut – a group whose modus operandi is inclusive, creative, defiant people power of the type that really does scare the government – has been brutally suppressed. A hundred and thirty eight members have been detained, including a fifteen year old girl who was so frightened in jail that she was made to sign a form excusing the police from culpability, should she go on to commit suicide. There has been very little public outcry. The next wave in the battle for the hearts and minds of the British public has truly begun.

This is the follow-up to an earlier article published at the New Statesman.

Elephantmen: Dr Moreau meets apocalyptic noir science fiction comic

I’m late to the party on Elephantmen — the comic has been running since 2006 and there’ve been three collections to date. I’ve just read the first one, Wounded Animals and I’ve got that happy, warm feeling that comes from discovering something great, finishing it, and realizing there’s plenty more where that came from (I discovered the series on a visit back to LA’s Secret Headquarters, where the curated collection of comics never lets me down).

Elephantmen (which spun out of Image Comics’s Hip Flask) is the a Dr Moreau-esque story of a race of human-animal chimeras created by a mad, savage doctor who wants to breed superwarriors to fight in an African war. The Elephantmen (who are not just elephant-human hybrids, but also hippos, rhinos, crocs, etc) are rescued from their maker and brought back to human society, the living brutalized evidence of the horrors of 23rd Century warfare. They are rehabilitated, given jobs and stipends, and eased into “normal life.”

But life can never be normal for the Elephantmen; they were brainwashed to be merciless killers, they are traumatized and stigmatized. Some are cruel, some are wounded — some are hunted.

Full of pathos and told in a series of disjointed, flashbulb vignettes, Elephantmen is great apocalyptic noir fiction, and the pulpy, over-the-top artwork (half EC comics, half Metal Hurlant) is a perfect complement.

Elephantmen Volume 1: Wounded Animals

DMZ: MIA Redemption without forgiveness

DMZ: MIA is the ninth collection of Brian Wood’s spectacular (anti-)war comic set in a Manhattan ravaged by an American civil war that is fuelled by scumbag profiteer military contractors, sensationalist right-wing cable news, hard-ass pandering politicos, and a redneck separatist army who’ve all converged on New York for a decade of house-to-house fighting amid gangs and co-ops and losers and heroes.

Hearts and Minds, the last volume of DMZ, finished with Matty in a terrible, howling moral vacuum, and this volume opens up with a series of guest-written/drawn sequences that offer flashbulb glimpses into the nobility and sacrifice, the venality and cowardice of war-torn New York.

Then Wood retakes the reins, and paints a picture of Matty Roth, transformed hero of the series, wracked by guilt and self-pity, careening toward self-annihilation, having lost all hope and will. But Wood’s not done with Matty, and by the time this episode ends, there’s a trademark Wood-ian mixture of redemption without forgiveness to be had through a series of satisfying plot twists that illuminate and confuse the story at the same time.

Wood’s written a lot of great stuff (I ran out and read everything he’d done as soon as I’d finished with DMZ one) but this is really his masterwork, an end-of-the-world story that refuses to buy into trite cozy apocalypse, into dog-eat-dog self-rationalized barbarism, or into Pollyanna fables about everyone kissing and making up.

I don’t think you can really read this volume without getting into the earlier ones (and I’d argue that the series is so big that it’s time for some giant hardcover omnibuses, like the Walking Dead hardcovers), but that just means you should go out and read those earlier ones.