January 4, 2004

Strange New Worlds

It's 2:33 in the morning here on the East Coast of the United States, and I'm watching a crappy, pixelated webcast feed from NASA TV. There are fifty or more people crammed into a relatively small room, looking intently at screens which are stubbornly showing small calibration squares and static data and not much else. A few hours ago, we waited and agonized with the JPL/ NASA crews as their robot child stopped talking to them for re-entry. I listened to the frightening numbers read off in the quiet nervous room - twelve thousand two hundred miles per hour, one hundred fifty three miles above the Martian surface, preparing to decelerate at up to 6 gee- I chewed nails and watched, preparing to settle in for a long night of waiting and the likely disappointment. The lander phoned home, and we all sighed in relief.

Now we wait; all we know is that the Mars Odyssey orbiter has captured around 24 megabytes of data during its 12-minute overflight of the landing spot, and is preparing to relay the data back to earth.

" Flight, imaging; we had a loss of signal during the transmission and we had to modify the download priority tables, and we're now showing an ETA of hour seven minute 28."

"Imaging, flight; roger. We'll be happy to wait another five minutes for these."

"Flight, imaging; thank you all for your patience."

The wait continues. I have time to get a Diet Coke from the fridge, taking a quick run to the loo before dashing back to my computer and locking my reddened eyes to the screen again. Fortunately, my computer has a nice screen, minimizing my eyestrain.

More waiting. Half the Coke gone.

-there is a burst of noise, and people are jumping up from their seats-

"Wow. Wow wow wow. We're getting pictures, pictures from the surface of Mars - this is, these are thumbnails? That's the first picture-" it looks like a smudged circle and dark shape "-and it's the calibration target."

More cheering.

"Wow." That word will become almost a constant companion. Pictures start to flow in.

Suddenly, there's another burst of cheering - an image has popped up on the screen with a bright band across the top, and it becomes clear even through the crappy webcast - that's Mars. It's a part of Mars humanity has never seen. It's only the fourth time humans have managed to get imagery from the surface of the planet, and the first time from anywhere near this spot.

The Coke is gone, and I'm smiling like an idiot.

More cheering and wows. The mast has extended and a series of images from cameras atop the mast are popping up now - and then, finally, a mosaic is pieced together as we watch, and we are looking out past the black boxy shape of the rover and at a horizon with rocks on it. Final touch: a polar projection, an image assembled to look 'down' from the mast, blending the nine images from the mast cameras.

From a perch six feet above three hundred million miles, I stand and look down on this small voyager as it prepares to go to sleep with the sunset, and I swear it looks back at me with an expression of pride and satisfaction.

This is a good way to start a year. Posted by jbz at January 4, 2004 3:01 AM

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