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Comment Re:Horses and Barn Doors... (Score 1) 226

Yes, but don't worry: that massive amount of info they're collecting on you as part of HSPD-12[*] is perfectly safe.

[*] Where NASA said we all had to submit to unrestricted background investigations -- where they could gather any data they wanted on you, from any source, whether it be your doctor, your lawyer, your priest, your ISP, or whatever -- and then a secret, unappealable tribunal would decide if we could keep our jobs. I and others sued them over this, and lost. But don't worry, we can all see that NASA keeps careful track of sensitive information.

Comment Re:It's gotten hard to hate on Microsoft. (Score 1) 444

Yeah, I know what you mean. There's this guy who burgled my house 20 years ago. And 19 years ago. And 18 years ago, and so on. Even when the cops caught him, he was never punished -- just set free to burgle my house again. But he didn't burgle my house last year, so I'm not mad.

I wonder why people around here hate Microsoft?

Comment A JPLer's view (Score 1) 131

Both ends of this are wrong, at least in the short to medium term: our data's not that accessible, and most things you call the help desk for are not Googlable (if that's a word). Things like JPL's internal policies and procedures, for example -- we have an internal, Google-based search engine, but it's not able to find everything by a long shot.

Also, as it happens, our help desk is very good -- even if it is run by Lockheed Martin -- and it would actually be a shame to see it go away. This might change someday, but right now, humans are irreplaceable.

Comment LEGO and MER (Score 1) 164

These LEGO figurines look awesome! My hat's off to the JUNO team!

We sent (flattened) LEGO figurines aboard the MER landers, too (not on the rovers proper). Their names were Biff Starling and Sandy Moondust, if I recall correctly. See my blog for a terrific color picture of Spirit's LEGO figurine before she drove away.

Comment Re:Doomed to become a statistic (Score 1) 191

The MER landing system was pretty damn complicated as well -- you shouldn't think otherwise just because it worked perfectly, twice. (And the late add of the DIMES system, which used images taken during descent to make decisions about rocket firing, made things even more complex but probably saved Spirit.)

I know some of the engineers working on the MSL landing system, and they're well aware that it all needs to work properly. They're also terrifically smart, the kind of people who can make this work if anyone can.

Do I think it's a guaranteed success? Of course not: guaranteed successes don't happen in this business. But I also recognize that it's not more complex than it needs to be, to solve this very hard problem.

Comment A plaintiff's view (Score 4, Informative) 172

(Disclaimer: I'm a named plaintiff in this lawsuit.)

I'm only about halfway through the ruling, but it's hard for me to know where to begin criticizing it. Here are some choice bits:

* The ruling says that we shouldn't be worried because the government promises to protect our privacy. That's fatally absurd in the era of Wikileaks: if the government can't keep its own secrets secret, what are the odds that it'll keep my secrets secret?

* The ruling says that the government needn't show that its questions must be crafted as narrowly as possible to further its interests. This seems to ignore an interesting distinction between the government and private employers: the government can now ask you anything it wants, and jail you if it doesn't like the answers. Worse, the government can change its mind about what you get in trouble for, as a lot of people discovered unpleasantly in the 1950s, so something that's perfectly safe to admit now can get you in trouble a decade from now.

* It's a special irony that Justice Thomas held (in a minority view) that there's no right to informational privacy at all. (Fortunately, the majority explicitly refused to rule on that point.) Perhaps Justice Thomas would like to tell us what really went on between him and Anita Hill, then? Or maybe privacy is good for the gander, in his view, but not so much for the goose.

* Remember that this ruling is only on a preliminary injunction. We haven't even gone to trial yet. The legal system is as intricate as only a centuries-old piece of code can be, and we have a long way to go yet. (Contrary to a highly misleading internal all-hands JPL email message issued after the ruling, incidentally.)

I have lots more to say, but I'm going to meet with our lawyers now. Grr.

Comment How you can help (Score 4, Informative) 238

As a named plaintiff in this lawsuit, I'm awfully happy to see the widespread support here on Slashdot. I'd like to be able to keep driving Mars rovers around without having to sign a form that says NASA can interrogate my priest, my doctor, my lawyer, my accountant, and my ISP to make sure I'm sufficiently uninteresting.

If you'd like to help, please consider donating to keep our amazing legal team afloat. The privacy you save could be your own. Thank you!

Comment Grr, both summary and story are misleading (Score 5, Informative) 155

We never particularly expected to hear from Spirit before this coming October +/- 1 month, making the suggestion that we're "beginning to realize she might never wake up again" more than a little misleading. According to our best models, the energy levels on Mars are just barely reaching the point where Spirit might wake up for even a few minutes a day, and hearing anything from her at this point would be a great stroke of luck. Have patience. She's there.

I understand that NASA is trying to manage expectations, but their way of doing it is bad management that needlessly demoralizes the team. My own personal expectation is that we damn well will hear from Spirit, and after a certain recovery period she'll be moving on Mars again.

Comment Re:It's not as bad as it sounds (Score 2, Informative) 250

My understanding was that improving the solar tilt would likely risk making it "more stuck" such that the probability of digging out after winter was through would be much lower.

That depends on what we do. Some actions would indeed risk embedding Spirit permanently; we're not going to do those if we can avoid it.

The most severe such action would be to bury the right front (RF) wheel. For better or worse, this would likely require the RF drive actuator to be significantly more cooperative than it has been. That's the wheel that died two years into Spirit's surface mission, and we tried to restart it during extrication. To our surprise, we've seen a little bit of life in it, but not so much that it can bury itself. So we probably couldn't do that even if we wanted to.

Instead, we'll probably focus mostly on arcing Spirit around so that her own structure (camera mast and high-gain antenna) casts fewer shadows on the deck, then maximize our wheelie on one side and flatten it on the other side in such a way as to aim the solar panels more to the north. The first part of this (arcing around) is what we'd be doing for extrication anyway, and the second part might reduce our extrication chances slightly but not too much. Only then, if our northerly tilt is still insufficient and we think we can materially improve it, will we take actions that could severely reduce the odds of eventual extrication. But it's not likely to come to that, if only because there's not a whole lot more we could do, period.

Comment It's not as bad as it sounds (Score 5, Insightful) 250

Don't get me wrong, Spirit's situation is bad. But it's not as bad as it sounds.

We are not going to extricate Spirit by winter, that much is true: we have a handful of drive attempts left, we progressed about 7.4 cm on our best sol so far -- 4-5cm has been more typical for our recent drive attempts -- and we have over a meter to go (to the nearest likely extrication point) before we no longer have enough energy to drive. You can't argue with arithmetic: we're not going to make it in time.

Instead, we'll focus our remaining drive attempts on improving Spirit's northerly tilt, which in turn improves her energy intake through the winter. We'll then hunker down for the winter and focus on performing stationary science, such as investigating the soil and rocks we've newly exposed during our extrication driving and participating in radio science experiments to determine whether Mars's core is liquid or solid. (Incidentally, how freaking cool is that?!)

After about six months of stationary science observations, we'll start moving again, at least within a small area. If Spirit feels up to it, we might even get properly back on the road again next year, though her mobility will always be limited -- relative to what she used to be able to achieve -- by the fact that she now has two broken wheels, not just one. That second wheel failure was what put the kibosh on our first serious attempts at extrication from the "Troy" sand pit. We now have a workaround that has been showing some real promise; there's just not enough time to complete that path before winter stops us.

As an important caveat, that "six months of stationary science" will be extended by however long Spirit goes into a low-power mode for the winter. We are likely not to hear from her at all for about six months, and during that time she can't make the observations that will contribute to the stationary science plan, so she'll probably be sitting still for an Earth year or so. Worst of all, during that low-power period, she might die: lack of energy means insufficient heating means components operating below design temperatures means, possibly, end of life. But if she survives that, she'll move again.

In summary: Grandma was already limping, and now she's broken her leg. She's also probably going to go into a coma for a while. But we've known her a long time and she's a feisty sucker; don't ever, ever count her out.

Comment Re:Use the arm ? (Score 4, Informative) 118

It's equal parts -- can't remember if that's by weight or by volume, but I think it's by volume -- of Lincoln 60 fire clay and food-grade diatomaceous earth. (FGDE is normally used for, among other things, de-worming horses and killing centipedes. I tasted it. Bleah.)

One entertaining afternoon a few months back, when we were testing out different mixes, fellow rover driver Paolo Bellutta and simulant designer Kim Lichtenberg (the mix is called "KimSim" :-) and I drove out to a local ranch, picked up a huge bag of food-grade diatomaceous earth, and drove back to Lab. Later, I was up to my elbows hand-mixing a batch of the stuff in a wheelbarrow. Ah, the things I get paid to do!

Comment Re:Use the arm ? (Score 5, Informative) 118

Using the arm to help isn't completely off the table, but pretty close, largely for reasons you conjectured about in your post. First, we can't actually push while driving, because the motor controllers are shared between the arm and the wheels -- you can run one or the other, but not both at once.

We could, potentially, push down with the arm to lift Spirit slightly, then run the wheels. But Spirit's just not strong enough to make much difference. :-) In the best case, we can push down with maybe 70N of force, and that's if we had a hard surface to push on. (But if we had a hard surface to push on, we probably wouldn't be mired in this stuff in the first place.) For comparison, you'd need to apply ~ 650N to completely lift Spirit, so the arm can apply only about 1/10 of the needed force. As you can see, she wasn't designed to do one-handed push-ups. :-)

Further, doing so would pose a high risk of damage to the arm itself, and since four of Spirit's science instruments -- about 2/3 of the total science payload -- live on the end of that arm, the potential downsides are quite significant.

In addition, it's not completely clear that pushing down with the arm to partially lift Spirit would actually help: one effect of that would be to reduce the traction on the wheels, and not having enough traction is one of our big problems here.

Resculpting the terrain is a less unlikely scenario, but something we're keeping in our back pocket for now. There are few suitable rocks within reach, we've never tried it and (again) would risk damaging the arm by doing so, and on top of all that we don't even know if it would actually help, since the rocks might simply slip quickly under the wheels without moving us forward much. Even so, if things get desperate enough, we might possibly try that one.

The soil we're stuck in is very weird, and has some counterintuitive properties. It doesn't work like dirt or mud. We mixed up a batch of simulant to drive our test rover in, and while there are known differences between the simulant and the real soil, the experience of working with the simulant is quite illuminating. The stuff feels like flour and flows like water: run your hand through it, and it flows away from you like water does, it just stops moving sooner. Weird, weird stuff.

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There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom. -- Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923