Pasadena (CA) – Thousands of people attended the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s annual open house over the last weekend. NASA and Caltech scientists and researchers showed off their latest robots, test satellites and even movable replicas of the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit. Browse through our slide show to follow us around.
JPL stretches between La Canada-Flintridge and Pasadena California. The lab belongs to NASA, but is managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). JPL is responsible for much of the nation’s space research and is also where the Mars rover’s are controlled.
The open house has become an annual tradition drawing people from around Southern California. We saw dozens of children clutching small notepads, sheepishly asking the scientists questions like, “Can we survive on Mars?” and “How fast can the robots go?” Their parents told us that many elementary schools give extra credit to students who attend the open house and ask questions.
The event spanned dozens of sites and many people took advantage of the free bus service up and down the steep hills. In our gallery you’ll see pictures of a replica of the Mars rover. NASA currently has two rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, on Mars. The scientists were quite proud of both vehicles and told us that Spirit’s landing in the Gusev crater was like, “getting a golf hole in one, millions of miles away.”
The replica was remotely steered with a laptop and could drive over small obstacles. While the rover looked as if it was simply driving over rocks – similar to how our cars would – scientists said the computers actually detect the obstacle and lift the wheels up to clear it.
Another hot attraction were the spider-looking Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robots (LEMURs). Meant to climb on spacecraft and cliffs, these small robots will perform hull checks and minor maintenance. JPL employees told us that the LEMURS will be both autonomous and remotely controlled.
The LEMURs moved quite slowly and some questioned their usefulness versus a human astronaut. JPL employees brushed off those concerns and explained that astronauts have to spend 13 hours just to put on the space suit and get ready for a space walk. “The bot doesn’t move that fast, but at least it can start moving right away,” said one scientist.
Rounding out the event were other exhibits like the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) and the ethereal-looking Aerogel. RTGs contain Plutonium-238 and generate power for deep space satellites. Scientists told us that any satellite going past Saturn needs either an RTG or similar power units. The Plutonium isn’t weapons-grade and according to scientists cannot be processed into a bomb. We’re pretty sure the exhibit didn’t actually contain Plutonium, but scientists joked that they could maybe cook their lunch on the unit.
Aerogel was the last exhibit we saw. The solid is more than 99% air and is used to insulate ships and capture space particles. The insulating properties are so good that scientists boasted to us that a sheet of Aerogel could protect your hand from a blowtorch at point blank range.
We declined to take them up on that challenge.