While NASA engineers have adjusted the flight path of the Phoenix Mars Lander, setting the spacecraft on course for its May 25 landing on the Red Planet, performing the first trajectory maneuver targeting a specific location in the northern polar region of Mars, result of the analysis of HiRISE that prompted the Phoenix team to shift the center of the landing target 13 kilometers (8 miles) southeastward, away from slightly rockier patches to the northwest, confirming the final landing site, as announced by Ray Arvidson to this blog on the 50 days to Mars celebration, here on Earth, 44 days to Mars, it is time to know what has Daniel Parrat, a spacEurope reincident, been doing since his last and precious participation (read it here and here) in this blog in the days preceding the launch of Phoenix.
Daniel has moved in Tucson about two months ago, to be closer to where the action is taking place and is now working on the microscopy station of MECA, i.e. the Optical Microscope (OM) and the FAMARS instrument at the Phoenix Science Operations Center.
Let’s see what is happening over there as the clock seems to run faster and faster towards May 25!
"My work here mostly consists in the preparation of the operations. The first part of the job is some training for my role during the mission. I will be an ISE (Instrument Sequence Engineer) for the microscopy part of MECA, meaning that I will uplink the sequences controlling the OM and FAMARS. These sequences have to be prepared and validated well in advance, and only small changes (notified in advance) are made the day they are sent. John Michael Morookian, from JPL, has written most of the MECA sequences (VML language), and I have made small contributions for the AFM and the OM. The sequences for the first week of the mission are already "frozen", meaning that any change that we would like to make to them has to be approved by a team led by the mission manager. Most of my work now is to determine if the set of sequences that we have created until now is sufficient, and if changes have still to be done. The validation process is very rigorous, with different software simulations and runs on a flight-like testbed. The possible problems regarding running MECA in parallel with other instruments of the mission is also critical.
We have also gone through a certain number of "real time" trainings. During these tests, we were operating the PIT (payload interoperability testbed) as if it was the real spacecraft. We were working on Martian time, and sometimes during the night. The last "surface" training, the "characterization phase dry-run" consisted in reproducing the first week of the mission, using the "frozen" sequences that I have mentioned.
We try to make some tests on the hardware to improve our knowledge of the experiments that we will do on Mars. These tests encompass topics such as sample delivery to MECA by the Robotic Arm, AFM targeting of particles based on OM images, determination of the best exposures for the OM, removal of bad AFM tips, etc.
Finally, some documentation has to be written for use during the operation. These documents describe the capabilities of the instruments, their calibration, the kind of data they can produce. The Phoenix science team will need these pieces of information when taking decisions during the mission.
The next training is ORT10, which will take place in May, a couple of weeks before the landing. It will consist in doing the first three sols of operations, i.e Sol 0, Sol 1 and Sol 2.
We are very close to the landing now; it is really exciting, but it also requires a lot of work for the whole team!"
Editor’s note: Urs Staufer, Co-Investigator, Atomic Force Microscope, Soil Analysis, who introduced me to Daniel, was, at the time, at University of Neuchatel and is now professor at the University of Delft but, as indicated by our guest, will continue to work on the project, especially during the operations.