January 05, 2012

Photo Essay: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena (Updated for 2017)

For a long time, I thought California's history in space exploration was limited to the telescopes at observatories like Mt. Wilson and Palomar.

circa August 2016

But it turns out, not only does NASA have a flight research center near Edwards Airforce Base, but also the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in conjunction with CalTech...

circa August 2016

...where space-bound robotics (rovers, probes and the like) are designed, built, tested, and remotely operated.

Abutting the Upper Arroyo Seco, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory sprawls across the foothills of the Angeles National Forest.

Like its own little hamlet, the campus has its own network of streets, and even cautions unique to its industry.

But given its proximity to the Forest, it also has a lively population of "friendly" deer who mingle peacefully with the staff...

...though we were warned not to approach them too closely, for fear they'd charge us in defense.

circa August 2016

Because of its affiliation with Caltech (as it was founded by Caltech faculty), JPL was built like a college campus...

circa January 2017

...and is run like a college campus.

circa August 2016

And because it's an active, working facility (with government ties), security is pretty tight.

circa August 2016

On the tour, we only got to go inside a few of the buildings...

circa August 2016 to the assembly room, where the next Mars rover (temporarily called "Mars 2020") will be put together.

We also visited the In Situ Instrument Laboratory...

...where duplicate models of rovers are placed in laboratory-controlled situations that are nearly identical to conditions on the surface of Mars, so they can test out maneuvers.

circa January 2017

But there's not much room inside, so JPL has a much larger "Mars Yard" outside...

circa January 2017

...where technicians and engineers can do a lot more maneuvering to figure out how to pass over rough terrain or get unstuck out of space sand.

circa January 2017

And if something goes wrong, JPL has its own fire department—well-versed in HAZMAT—it can deploy to be on the scene as quickly as possible. 

circa August 2016

Throughout the tour, there are various models that you can get up close to, including a 1/5 scale model of the solar panel-powered Juno Spacecraft (which studies Jupiter)...

circa August 2016

...a 1/10 scale model of Genesis, which collected samples of solar wind from 2001 to 2004...

...and a 50% scale model of Cassini, whose 2004 mission was to orbit Saturn, study its rings, and release a probe towards Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

circa August 2016

There are also models of the three rovers that have landed on Mars so far—the first being the size of a microwave oven and the second, the size of a golf cart. The 100% full-scale model of the third and most recent Mars rover, Curiosity—which landed on Mars in 2012—is approximately the size of an SUV.

Curiosity is technically considered a "chemist"—whose built-in "science laboratory" collects specimens from the planet's surface, tests them, and sends its analyses back to Earth (communications of which go through the Goldstone complex).

Among the artifacts in the museum include a moon rock and a sample of Aerogel, a silicon-based solid which is comprised of 99.8% air, making it the lightest solid in existence. It's used as insulation on Mars rovers, and was also used on prior missions to help trap comet particles.

circa August 2016

There's also the four-track, 114 MB magnetic tape recorder that stored data from the 1989 Galileo mission (also to Jupiter)—which just goes to show how quickly our technology can become antiquated by the time a mission is completed (in this case, 2003).

All of these missions are controlled from one room in the Space Flight Operations Facility ("The Center of the Universe," and a national historic landmark built in 1963), whose computers and large screens look like a scene out of Wargames.

It's probably the coolest access point on the whole JPL tour—especially if you can catch a guy "in the act" of operating a Mars rover down there, in public view.

Because our understanding of "deep space" (that is, the moon and beyond) is constantly evolving, and there's often something either being launched or landed via the controls at JPL, you kind of have to keep going back.

Fortunately, I've gotten to the point where I don't have to take an official tour every time—because I can get the "unofficial" tour from a friend who works there.

And that tour includes lunch.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Getting Interstellar at NASA's Top Secret Goldstone Deep Space Complex
Photo Essay: Where Old Meets New at Caltech
Photo Essay: Gazing Beyond the Stars at Carnegie Observatories
Intergalactic Reflections at Mount Wilson's 100-Inch Telescope
Photo Essay: Palomar Mountain & Observatory

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