In my previous article I outlined a challenge facing NASA, apathy from the younger generation. Being a keen newshound for BNN I decided to do some investigative journalism, to discover if NASA is ‘Hot or Not’.

A few minutes of Googling confirmed my theory. NASA is hot! If NASA was female she would be a ten. I found two very exciting stories, both of which concern our close neighbor Mars.

The Mars rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) are about to enter their fourth year of service. These remote controlled marvels of technology were designed for a 90 day mission. Spirit and Opportunity have exceeded that estimate by a factor of 12.

Each of the rovers has transmitted over 80,000 high resolution photographs back to earth, together with countless gigabytes (a gigabyte is 1 billion characters, or about 1000 regular length novels) of other data.

Spirit and Opportunity are also getting smarter as they get older. A new software upgrade (The fourth since launch) is now giving them a better understanding of their surroundings and how to avoid obstacles without help from the controllers here on Earth. Another part of the upgrade gives the rovers the ability to actually look for ‘dust devils’ and cloud formations, rather than relying on just lucky photography.

At the heart of the rovers is a small computer. This specially radiation hardened chip is running at about 20mhz (This is about the same speed as the late 80’s Intel 386 Personal Computer processor). Needless to say Spirit and Opportunity are not running Microsoft Windows.

If my memory serves me correctly, Spirit and Opportunity have been ‘re-booted’ about 3 times each (as opposed to my Windows system which seems to require re-booting 3 times a day!). Three years and not a single virus or a ‘Blue Screen Of Death’; yes, NASA has the ‘Write stuff’.

The second Mars related story involves a relatively new project, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). HiRISE is part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) mission. Launched in 2005 it has been in Mars orbit since mid 2006. HiRISE is a very high resolution digital camera capable of incredible resolution pictures.

HiRise has been transmitting these pictures back to Earth, and they are stunning. The HiRISE project team has created a web site so that we can all enjoy them.

One photograph in particular caught my attention, a picture of one of the rovers (roll your mouse over the picture to get the legend). The amazing thing is that the rover was almost 200 miles away when the picture was taken. Try doing that with your Nikon Cool Pix!

The HiRISE web site has just added a new feature, you can actually zoom around some of the very high resolution images.

So my take is that NASA is cool, in fact I think NASA is very cool indeed.

Simon Barrett


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