Mars press briefing, Friday at 1:00 p.m. (Eastern)

By Phil Plait | February 22, 2006 9:43 pm

We interrupt this NASA-bashing (and I suspect there will be more; I have some more items I’m tracking down right now in fact) for this announcement:

On Friday, February 24 at 13:00, NASA will be holding a press briefing about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a pretty beefy mission due to enter orbit around the Red Planet on March 10. I think that link will have a public webcast of the briefing, but there is nothing there at the moment. NASA TV will carry it, but on their "Public, Education, and Media channel". Go to their website for info on how to watch.

I’ll add that Mars exploration is something NASA is doing very, very well. The rovers are still operating more than two years after arriving on Mars, and their nominal mission lifetime was 90 days. Not too bad, exceeding the planned lifetime by a factor of 7… and the Mars Global Surveyor is still returning so many images the scientists can’t keep up with them. People will be studying those images for decades.

This science is the kind of thing NASA needs to give more funding to, devote more time to, and promote a whole lot more.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Rant, Science

Comments (16)

  1. “This science is the kind of thing NASA needs to give more funding to, devote more time to, and promote a whole lot more.”

    YES – I agree 100%.

  2. Mars rovers are still operating? wow!!! :-)
    News medias had so much about them, after their launch, an now nothing. The operation time is amazing!

  3. “This science is the kind of thing NASA needs to give more funding to, devote more time to, and promote a whole lot more.”

    Well said Phil !!

  4. I hate to say it, but I have to wonder whether or not these cuts are unavoidable. I would love for science to get more funding, but I fear that unless NASA can demonstrate (or at least convince the right people) that they have a robust manned program then Congress is liable to all but neuter the organization. In other words, if we scaled back or even eliminated the manned program over the long run it wouldn’t result in more money for science programs, but rather that money being moved to some other government department entirely.

    The only solution that gets around this is simply giving more money to NASA and I find it hard to see how in this era of runaway deficits how that is possible politically.

    In other words, I worry that NASA is damned no matter what they do.

  5. I wonder if it might be possible to separate the NASA “space science” component and the NASA “manned space exploration” component into separate entities. Then NASA wouldn’t internally rob the space science in order to pay for manned space exploration. That could still happen– but it would have to happen at the federal funding level.

    There are multiple problems. One is that while manned space exploration often plays better politically, it often doesn’t play all that well among scientists. Phil is actually pretty rare among astronomers and scientists in his enthusiastic support for the manned space program. Many of them, and many other people, question what the point of it is. Often, the manned space program is sold as science– but while there are scientific returns, that’s not really what it’s about. (There are much cheaper ways to get much larger scientific return– witness the Mars program that Phil writes about here.) I remember back when I was in grad school in the early 90’s, scientists were complaining about the ISS that was being sold as a scientific “microgravity” research platform, at least to scientists.

    I suspect that if scientists didn’t see the manned space program as something that was an alternative to doing space science, then more scientists would be more enthusiastic in their support of it. Right now, though, there’s a lot of tension, simply because politicians and the public seem to see manned space and space science/astronomy as “the same thing,” whereas they’re not really… so it’s bad for astronomy when that budget is eviscerated in the name of the manned space program.

    (There’s another cyical bit of me, too, that recognizes that none of the Mars manned mission initiatives currently on the table are going to happen. Eventually we’ll go, but not because of what our government is doing right now. The price tag in the immediate future is just too high. When I’m paranoid, I think this may be part of this administration’s war on science. Get all NASA funding redirected to something too expensive, then have Congress balk at the price tag and cancel the whole thing, and voila, you’ve gotten rid of the funding for a bunch of those pesky scientists and their anti-faith Big Bangist tendencies, or whatever.)

    -Rob Knop

  6. Apparently this orbiter can image things “as small as a dinner table.” I wonder if they will try to image the Viking and other landing sites?

  7. The Mars Rovers still going…sounds like Nasa is taking the Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott approach to engineering by multiplying its time estimates. Good idea.

  8. “I wonder if it might be possible to separate the NASA “space science” component and the NASA “manned space exploration” component into separate entities.”
    – Rob Knop (3 comments up)

    I like this idea, but having two distinct programs might make it harder for either to get funding. I’d be nervous about that…

    but regarding the post:
    I can’t believe how much amazing stuff has come off of Mars in the last couple of years. Those rovers blow my mind… talk about amazing engineering and some great luck!

    [fantasy sequence] It sure would be nice if one of the rovers could make it to one of the viking craft to see how it weathered the 30-something years… [/fantasy sequence]

  9. I wish NASA would bring out the rover images to the public more often. Most people have totally forgotten about the rovers. I was at a garage sale last summer and I was wearing my Mars Rover T-shirt. The guy in the garage said “hey, nice shirt!”. I commented that I though it was so cool that they were still going (this was after just the first year) and he said “huh? The rovers are still going?”.
    I forget where it was, but I once also overheard someone say “So….are the rovers coming back after they are done with their 90 mission?” I think I must have blew milk out my nose after hearing that (if I was drinking milk).

    I still check the Mars website every day looking for new images and news on the rovers. Then I visit the Cassini site, then hubble, then…..
    Oh, then I figure I better quit screwing around and do real work! :-)

    I have this page set as my default page on my browser:
    Quick way to catch up on the latest images sent back from all the spacecraft.

    Cool stuff!


  10. If all American voters were still wide-eyed kids in elementary school, we’d have a Mars base by now.

    That JPL photojournal rocks, by the way.

  11. Chet

    Thanks, Tom G! More of the public should know and access that website.
    I’ll pass it on to my wife who teaches sixth grade science.

  12. If only people would realise what a feat it is, not only to have the Mars rovers run way beyond their expected life cycle, but also that we can see the pictures from Mars right here on Earth!

  13. Explaining something like that is difficult to the layman. I just explain to people that the biggest reason we have cellphones with these awesome cameras and other gizmos is because NASA landed on the Moon. If we don’t do something equally as ambitious, then consumer technology here in the US will stagnate.

    That tends to get people to ask what can be done…the answer is putting footprints on Mars. And after Mars, we just keep going further. Then we’ll get some really kick-ass cellphones. :)

  14. Rumour Mongerer

    It’s just me being nit-picky, but there’s something amusing in that the Bad Astronomer typos “the Mar Reconnaissance Orbiter”… What’s it planning on doing when it gets there?

  15. Will

    It may well be that the exploration which was done by the Beagle’s scientists and crew as it circumnavigated the world two centuries ago was the last time such a combined exploration/scientific expedition will be possible. The dangers faced by the crew were real enough, but technically not insurmountable even with the technical limitations and physical restrictions of the time. Space exploration by humans would seem to be another venture entirely, posing risks and hazards of often unimaginable proportions. But that is what some of us humans seem to be able to do best: take risks. We also have to find someone to invest in those risky schemes, and increasingly that investment cannot be supported entirely by the private sector – governments must get involved (Bert Rutan aside). However, science and risk takers are now spread across the globe as other governments pursue the science of space exploration. Perhaps it is time for a collective of interested governments which want to pursue the science of manned space exploration to pool their resources (and stifle their need to be “first”). The Russian/U.S. joint ventures were a start. I wonder if the time is right for a “United Nations of Space Exploration” to organize itself; I would bet that countries which could never hope to mount manned explorations of their own would be happy to be included in a combined effort. Then again, given the “medal counting” seen at the Olympic events, maybe this is simply wishful thinking…

  16. I just listened to the recovered piano rolls recorded by Mahler himself. Strange to listen to the tempi, the fortes knowing that it was the master himself who gave his impression of his music.


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