Space

A month ago today, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft awoke from a 31-month-long nap and transmitted a simple message back to Earth, 420 million miles away: “Hello, world.”

Artist impression of the lander approaching the comet. (Courtesy ESA)

Artist impression of the lander approaching the comet. (Courtesy ESA)

Philippe Kletzkine SM ’83 smiled when he heard the news. The last time Kletzkine saw Rosetta was at its launch, on March 2, 2004. As ESA’s manager for the Rosetta Philae Lander, he had great hopes but he knew he would need great patience, too.

And the Rosetta team’s patience has been tried, especially for the past three years. Since Rosetta was so far away from the sun, gathering momentum for its trip to a comet, it was programmed to power down for 31 months to conserve energy. Whether it awoke from that nap in January was quite literally a long shot.

The orbiter did wake, but now Kletzkine hopes his comet landing probe, still in hibernation on the orbiter, will awaken too. In November, it has a date to become the first such probe to land on a comet.

“The next big milestone will be the awakening of the Lander, in a few weeks, so its own housekeeping telemetry can be analyzed on ground for a thorough health check,” says Kletzkine. “And then, on to the comet phase. If all goes well, it will land in late 2014, and with a bit of luck more science [will come] from the surface of the comet thereafter. Lots to look forward to, even for those, like me, who are no longer in the driver’s seat.”

Like many who joined the Rosetta project before its launch, Kletzkine has moved on. He is currently project manager for the ESA’s Solar Orbiter, an even more ambitious effort aimed at traveling closer to the sun than ever before (though still 27 million miles from it). Scheduled for a 2017 launch, the orbiter aims to photograph the sun’s two poles for the first time.

When he joined the Rosetta team in 2000, Kletzkine was uncertain that Rosetta would even make it to liftoff. Landing a satellite on a comet millions of miles away from one’s lab can be daunting.

“The greatest difficulty was to design to an unknown environment,” Kletzine says. “How do you specify the elements of a landing gear when you don’t know whether you will land on compact hard rock, porous terrain, or fluffy regolith? Is the danger to rebound, or maybe to sink into the surface? If you try to cover all worst cases, you create a versatile but enormously bulky and costly monster. If you cover too few possibilities, your chances of mission success dwindle. Remember, too, that all this was done with 1990s technology and a limited budget.”

Why land on a comet? From flybys of other comets, satellite photographs have revealed that comets have a great deal of ice. That’s prompted the question of whether water on earth is a result of a comet collision. Ultimately, comets may also hold secrets to where water—and possibly life—exist elsewhere in the universe.

Kletzkine is not the only alum working at ESA. Anne Pacros SM ’02, a payload systems engineer, works alongside Kletzkine on the Solar Orbiter project.

Pacros still remembers vividly the day ESA launched Rosetta.

“I was thrilled to hear about Rosetta’s successful ‘wake-up,’” she says, “but also thought, wow—already 10 years have passed.”

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Exoplanets_Slice

Update: Watch the Feb. 11 webcast.

The study of exoplanets can be portrayed as a single-minded quest for habitable, Earth-like planets. But the most remarkable discoveries have been exoplanets with unanticipated properties that can make habitation impossible.

In the Feb. 2014 Faculty Forum Online, Associate Professor Joshua Winn ’94, SM ’94, PhD ’01 described these new worlds—and shared research discoveries about the formation and evolution of planets.

Following his comments, Winn took questions from the worldwide MIT community via interactive chat. Watch the archived webcast then return to Slice of MIT and continue the conversation in the comments.

About Joshua Winn ’94, SM ’94, PhD ’01

Joshua Winn

Joshua Winn

Associate Professor Joshua Winn’s research explores the properties of planets around other stars, how planets form and evolve, and seeks to answer if there are other planets capable of supporting life.

His research group uses optical and infrared telescopes to study exoplanetary systems—particularly those in which the star and planet eclipse one another—and pursues topics in stellar astronomy, planetary dynamics, radio interferometry, gravitational lensing, and photonic band-gap materials.

Winn is the deputy science director of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a NASA mission scheduled for launch in 2017. He earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate for MIT and spent one year as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge University. He is a contributor to the science section of the Economist and held postdoctoral fellowships with the National Science Foundation and NASA. He joined the MIT Department of Physics in January 2006.

Related

Searching for solar systems like our own,” MIT News, March 13, 2013
Learning from Hot Jupiters,” MIT News, December 15, 2010
MIT Department of Physics Faculty Profile: Joshua Winn

About Faculty Forum Online

Eight times per season, the Faculty Forum Online presents compelling interviews with faculty on timely and relevant topics. Viewers watch and participate in live 30-minute interviews via interactive chat. Since its inception in 2011, archival editions of these programs have been viewed more than 50,000 times.

For the 2013-2014 season, the Alumni Association will produce three public service-themed evening editions centered titled “One Community Together in Service.”

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Credit: Hairuo G. '17

Credit: Hairuo G. ’17

Based on the antics of recent years, early November could be considered prime hacking season.

This year is no different, as rogue fans of the legendary science fiction book series Ender’s Game hacked Lobby 7 sometime over the weekend. The hack may have been celebrating the series’ long-awaited movie adaptation and depicted a hectic scene, with what appeared to be the International Fleet defending Earth from the alien Formics*.

Update: Thanks to alumni readers Eric G., Daniel L., and Michelle M., we now knows that the hack did not depict a battle between the International Fleet and the Formics, but a training exercise in the anti-gravity Battle Room.

Student bloggers from MIT Admissions were the first to document the hack, which also included draping the logos of three battle school armies in the Ender’s Game universe—Griffin, Dragon, and Tiger—down Bldg. 10. The battle scene took place near the center of Lobby 7, in an area currently roped off for construction purposes related to the building’s refurbished skylight.

Credit:

Credit: Hairuo G. ’17

The Ender’s Game movie premiered in the U.S. on Friday, Nov. 1, and earned nearly $28 million in its opening weekend. The book series, which began in 1977, consists of 13 novels, 13 short stories, and 47 comic issues.

Credit: Bruce Mendelsohn

Credit: Bruce Mendelsohn

As with many things science fiction, the books and film have MIT connections. Author and blogger Wax Banks (a.k.a. Walter Holland ’01) has called Ender’s Gamea kind of shared keystone text” for MIT students and the film’s visual effects supervisor is Matthew Butler SM ’93. NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff PhD ’92 served as a technical adviser for the film.

Credit: Hairuo G. '17

Credit: Hairuo G. ’17

Read more from Rachel D. ’16 and view more photos from Hairuo G. ’17 at the MIT Admissions blog. Special thanks to the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program’s Bruce Mendelsohn (@gordonmitelp) for the photo. For more hacks, check out Slice’s archive of hack-related posts.

*Admittedly, Slice staff has not yet read the series or seen the movie. We apologize to our readers and the International Fleet (but not the Formics) if our battle description is incorrect!

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The fully-restored Star Trek Galileo shuttlecraft

The fully-restored Galileo shuttlecraft

Nearly every episode of the original Star Trek television series began with the line, “Space: the final frontier.” But for one shuttlecraft used in the series, space was just the beginning.

Many trekkies recognize the Galileo as the original Trek shuttlecraft (a fictional vehicle designed for short trips in Space) that appeared in seven episodes of the original series from 1967-1969. In reality, the craft was a wobbly 23-foot-long wooden and metal prop that is today the largest surviving set piece from the show.

After the show’s cancellation in 1969, the Galileo was donated to a school for the blind and then bounced between collectors for more than 30 years before Trek aficionado Adam Schneider ’78 purchased it at an auction in 2012. The 47-year-old craft, which had not been physically maintained, was a rotted shell of its former space-traveling self.

The Galileo, circa 2012

The Galileo, circa 2012

“This was a prop that was designed to last five years—not 50,” Schneider says. “It had all kinds of structural problems. Each time it was moved it got more damaged.”

Undeterred, Schneider and his wife, Leslie, began working on its restoration with the specific goal of donating it to a museum. The team hired Hans Mikaitis of Master Shipwrights, a New Jersey-based ship builder and restorer, to refurbish and renovate the shuttlecraft.

No blueprints of how the Galileo was originally constructed are known to exist. The team had to rely on photos, episode screenshots, and input from the masses of Star Trek devotees online to recreate the shuttlecraft. The Schneiders covered the entire cost of the restoration.


Video via space.com

“We had to use the ship itself as a reference,” Schneider says, “We basically had to disassemble it to see how it was assembled.”

After nine months of restoration (which included delays caused by Hurricane Sandy) and an estimated 2,000 hours of work by Mikaitis’ team, the Galileo was identically restored to its original form—plus a few upgrades, including working doors and a replica circuit board designed and donated by a fan.

Adam Schneider (second from right) and the Master Shipbuilders team.

Adam Schneider (second from right) and the Master Shipbuilders team.

“It was much more repair work than any of us expected,” says. “Master Shipwrights did a phenomenal job. They were able to restore it to the highest standards. We told them they should change their name to master spaceship builders.”

On July 31, 2013, the Galileo was officially donated to Space Center Houston, the visitor’s center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. More than 400 Star Trek fans and celebrities attending ceremony, including Don Marshall, who played Lt. Boma in the original 1967 episode in which the Galileo first appeared. The shuttlecraft is now permanently docked at the center’s Zero-G Diner.

“We were hoping for an air and space organization to display it when it was complete,” Schneider says. “To be able to donate it to NASA—we’re absolutely thrilled.”

An avid Star Trek memorabilia collector (he owns more than a dozen miniatures ship models used during filming), Schneider admits it was somewhat bittersweet to see the Galileo depart.

“Our intention from day one was to donate it to a museum,” he says. “But it doesn’t get any bigger than the first craft ever built. Except for maybe the Enterprise in the Smithsonian—that’s about it!”

Learn more about the Galileo restoration and view a photo gallery of the year-long process at the project’s official site.

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Virgin Galactic, the Mojave, California-based firm that aims to bring the world’s first commercial passengers to space, named Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84 as its first president this week.

Isakowitz assumes the leadership role in a dubious time for non-commercial space travel. NASA, where Isakowitz recently served as deputy associate administrator, has seen its appropriations cut this year to nearly the lowest in a decade.

Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic.

Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84 poses with SpaceShipTwo. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic.

At the same time, Virgin Galactic’s proverbial star has risen. Founded by Richard Branson in 2004, the firm announced its 600th passenger booking for its commercial program last month. Its inaugural flight may take off as early as December.

Rumored to be among those 600 passengers, who each booked a $250,000 seat on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo: actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and pop singers Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.

“This is a transformational company and I am honored to take on this new role,” said Isakowitz. “As we chart an exciting course into the future of commercial space travel, I could not imagine a better team with which to do it.”

Isakowitz’s challenges as president will be formidable ones: leading the company through this critical first flight, negotiating rights to use the nation’s first spaceport, supporting NASA’s continuing mission, and growing its own researchers’ talents. Another challenge will be bringing that space-flight price tag down, one that certainly makes a summer vacation to Europe by contrast more appealing.

And of course, there’s safety.

“Our goal is to be the safest spaceflight vehicle in history,” Isakowitz said in a recent interview with Forbes, “but this does not equate to risk free because the safest ship is one that never leaves the harbour. We selected a vehicle that was safe by design and that has a very small number of critical systems, which supports safety through simplicity. Our system allows for a safe return for all involved even if there is an issue with the mission.”

Isakowitz joined Virgin Galactic in 2011 as its EVP and CFO. Before his work in space travel, Isakowitz served as CFO at the U.S. Department of Energy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and as a branch chief for the White House Office of Management and Budget. He began his career as an aerospace engineer and project manager at Lockheed Martin.

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NASA announced its newest class of astronaut candidates this week, one that includes Tyler Hague SM ’00, who studied aerospace engineering (Course XVI) and who brings the count of MIT astro-alums to 36. Before reporting to Johnson Space Center in August, Hague took a few minutes to talk with Slice about the news.

Did you ever think you would become an astronaut? 
I knew the odds were not in my favor,and there were a lot of things that would have to fall into place. Looking at it all was daunting, so I just focused on the task at hand and tried to do my best.

Tyler Hague SM '00. Photo courtesy NASA.

Tyler Hague SM ’00. Photo courtesy NASA.

How long have you wanted this?
It’s been a childhood dream. But it really took hold during my time at the US Air Force Test Pilot School when I was first exposed to flight test operations. The tight-knit, team approach to conducting operations and expanding understanding was something I really enjoyed and what drew me to NASA’s astronaut program.

Have you applied to be an astronaut before?
I applied three times. I applied for the 2004 and 2009 classes.

Talk about the moment you received this news.
It was overwhelming. I was honored with this opportunity. I realized that it was only possible because of countless others who supported me along the way. I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by so many wonderful people.

How did the MIT degree help shape your path?
MIT created countless opportunities. The education and discipline I received during my time in the Aero/Astro Department as a Draper Fellow formed a technical foundation that allowed me to jump right into my Air Force career and make an impact developing new systems and capabilities. It was invaluable during my time at test pilot school and throughout my career in acquisitions.

Where have you been since graduating from test pilot school in 2003?
I deployed in late 2004 for five months to Balad, Iraq, as part of a special mission named Horned Owl, where we conducted experimental airborne counter-IED operations. I am currently the deputy division chief conducting research and development of new solutions and countermeasures for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at the Joint IED Defeat Organization. Prior to that, I completed a legislative fellowship working in Senator Ben Nelson’s office, after which I served as the congressional appropriations liaison for US Central Command.

What happens when you report in August?
I begin a two-year training program to develop the foundational skills I will need to fly on the International Space Station. I am excited to be part of the team performing ISS operations and preparing for possible missions to explore asteroids and Mars.

Watch a video, courtesy of NASA, of Hague reacting the news.

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Like any engineer who has sat in traffic, Gregor Hanuschak MBA ’08 has dreamt of ways to ease the car-commuter’s diurnal ordeal in major cities.

While earning his degree at Sloan, another master’s at Stanford, or in his work for Lockheed Martin and NASA in California and Washington, DC, Hanuschak has sat in plenty of traffic jams.

Even though studying traffic patterns and public transportation solutions are worthy pursuits, Hanuschak wants to relieve drivers’ stress with song—percussion, to be exact.

Smack Attack

The Smack Attack steering wheel drum set. Photo: Gregor Hanuschak.

Launched in April, Hanuschak’s Smack Attack project Reinventing the Wheel aims to do even more for drivers than just cure boredom. A “drum set for your steering wheel,” Smack Attack claims to be a remedy for zoned-out drivers.

The device is easy to use: wrap the flexible drum pad around your steering wheel, plug into your phone’s music library (or use a wireless FM transmitter) and start drumming along.

“Experiencing highway hypnosis firsthand while driving across the US inspired me to design something to fight it and keep drivers alert,” writes Hanuschak on his Kickstarter page. “Sleep researchers are finding the best way to fight highway hypnosis is through auditory or tactile stimulation… and this product provides both!”

The project has drawn the attention of the Discovery Channel, Wired, and dozens of other media outlets. Hanuschak has already raised more than $10,000 for the combination device/app concept.

Hanuschak will put his studies in music, computer engineering, and business to practice as he develops and markets the product this year. He has produced the code for the Smack Attack’s smartphone app, produced music and videos to promote the device, and created a community portal on his website for users to share drum sounds and songs.

“Right now I’m trying to bring my costs down,” Hanuschak said earlier this week, “so I’m now learning from the experts. I’m working with the MIT Venture Mentoring Service for advice on this and entrepreneurial advice in general.”

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Christopher Cassidy SM ’00, P ’16

MIT alumni are everywhere—more than 126,000 spread across at least six continents. And beginning Thursday, March 28, PlanetMIT can add another virtual pushpin to its expanding community map: outer space.

NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy SM ’00, P ’16 will join two Russian cosmonauts on the Expedition 35 mission that will travel from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, to the International Space Station (ISS) on March 28 at 4:43 p.m. EDT. The journey, scheduled for six hours, marks the first time that a crew-carrying spacecraft will dock to the ISS within hours of launching. (Most flights general take at least two days to reach the station.)

Upon arrival at the ISS, the team will join three waiting astronauts for a 168-day journey that, according to NASA, will include several hundred experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science, and Earth science. Expedition 35 is scheduled to return to Earth on Sept. 11, 2013.

The March 28 voyage will be Cassidy’s second trip to space. As part of the 2009 NASA mission STS-127, Cassidy was designated the 500th person in space. He logged more than 376 space hours, including more than 18 hours of extra-vehicular activity during three spacewalks. That mission featured a record 13 astronauts representing all five ISS partners—U.S, Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan.

Cassidy, a U.S. Navy commander and former Navy SEAL, served during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, where he was awarded two Bronze Stars. He is one of nearly three dozen MIT alumni astronauts, a list that includes Buzz Aldrin ScD ’63, the Apollo 11 pilot for the first manned lunar landing, and Rusty Schweickart ’56, SM ’63, who piloted the Apollo 9′s first manned flight.

The MIT Club of South Texas will provide updates of Cassidy throughout his journey. NASA Television is covering pre-flight activities throughout the week and will provide live coverage of the launch beginning at 2:30 p.m. EDT on March 28.

Good luck and safe travels, Commander Cassidy!

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NASA’s Mastcam depicts where the rover ultimately performed its first sample drilling. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

More than six months after NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, the rover has drilled into the planet’s interior—the first time any robotic device has collected a sample on the planet.

The rover, which Time magazine deemed the best car in the entire solar system, previously discovered an area on the planet that may have contained a flowing stream. Researchers hope that the new sample will contain further evidence of past wet environments.

The official release from NASA includes quotes from three MIT alumni: John Grunsfeld ’80, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate; Louise Jandura ’84, SM ’86, chief engineer for Curiosity’s sample system; and Scott McClosky SM ’07, drill systems engineer.

From NASA.gov:

“The most advanced planetary robot ever designed is now a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars,” said Grunsfeld. “This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America.”

The connection between MIT and the Curiosity team is well-documented. A January 2013 article in MIT Technology Review explored the role of alumni who have worked on the project and team members Allen Chen ’00, SM ’02 and Bobak Ferdowsi SM ’03 returned to MIT for a panel discussion on the Mars mission last year.

From “Destination: Mars:”

Noah Warner ’01, SM ’03, PhD ’07, who plans and uplinks the rover’s current daily activities, says NASA’s “very focused goals” make a perfect fit for MIT people, who are “really inspired by technical challenges: things that have not been done before, or trying to find new ways to solve very difficult and important problems.”

Did you, or a fellow alum, work on NASA’s Curiosity rover or other projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory? Slice has heard from many alums regarding their work at NASA and JPL, but we know there are morewho contributed to the rover and other related projects. Share your experiences on the LinkedIn discussion page.

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Bobak Ferdowski SM ’03, a.k.a. “Mohawk Guy”

When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars at 1:30 a.m. (EST) on Aug. 5, 50 million people watched the seven-minute landing. For members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—which includes 20 MIT alumni—those seven minutes culminated years of preparation.

“I arrived at JPL in July 2002, and I joke that I worked 10 years for seven minutes,” says engineer Allen Chen ’00, SM ’02. “But it was an amazing seven-minute ride.”

On Oct. 10, Chen, flight director Bobak Ferdowsi SM ’03, and systems engineering and former MIT SPHERES project manager Steve Sell returned to MIT for a panel discussion on the Mars mission.

“Every time I watch video of the landing, I still get nervous,” Ferdowsi says. “It’s very emotional to watch—kind of like sending your kids off to college.”

(L-R) Ferdowsi, Steve Sell, and Allen Chen ’00, SM ’02

The discussion covered JPL’s decade-long preparation, the arrival on Mars, the team’s goals, and the sudden fame that comes with a Red Planet landing.

The latter issue was of particular relevance to Ferdowsi, whose memorable hairstyle earned him the nickname “Mohawk Guy,” inspired a viral internet meme, and received a shout-out from President Barack Obama.

“The best you can do is realize that it’s a positive thing,” Ferdowsi says. “You’re an ambassador for the program, and you stress that it’s not a one-person job—it’s a 3,000-person career.”

Chen’s statement upon the Curiosity’s arrival, “Touchdown confirmed—we’re safe on Mars,” became the landing’s signature line.

“Sometimes the engineering aspect is easy,” Chen says. “It’s not all about the problem sets. Its talking about and communicating the issues that can be difficult.”

The landing was the last step of Curiosity’s ten month, 350-million-mile voyage. The rover’s on-planet goals include exploring and assessing the Mars surface, and ultimately reaching Aeolis Mons, the Mars mountain unofficially known as Mount Sharp.

“Before it was, ‘What should we do when we get there?’” Chen says. “Now it’s, ‘We know what we want to do—how should we do it?’”

The Curiosity’s arrival on Mars was precise—the rover successfully landed in its designated two-mile wide area. The landing was aided by the innovative “sky crane,” which accurately lowered the rover to the surface.

“In the past, we were firing cannonballs at Mars,” Chen says. “Now we’re actually trying to steer. We designed a system that allowed the scientists to choose where we would land.”

Many of the images beamed back by the rover show an Earth-like landscape—“It reminds me of the Grand Canyon,” says Ferdowsi—and the team believes that they may have landed in a river bed.

Curiosity’s mission will last until at least 2018, with the potential for a reflight with a new instrument package in 2016 and another orbitter by 2020.

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