Transcript from the National Engineers Week Webchat: Phoenix Mars Mission Engineering

10:30 a.m. PT on Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cassie_Bowman> Hi all, and welcome! I'd like to introduce two Phoenix Mars Mission engineers, Pat Woida and Mark Garcia. Pat, would you like to start by giving us a little background about yourself?

Cassie_Bowman: Mark, could you give us a little information about your background as well?

Mark_Garcia> I am the Phoenix Deputy Mission Manager here at JPL. I've been working on Phoenix in various roles since early 2004 and am very excited for our landing on May 25th!

Pat_Woida> Hi, I'm one of the PHX engineers. I helped create, test, deliver, and will run on Mars the 3 camera systems. The Stereo Surface imager (SSI), the Robotic Arm Camera (RAC) and the Optical Microscope (OM) in MECA.

Jose: Isn't necessary to be in a space shuttle when working for NASA?
Mark_Garcia> No Jose, it is not necessary to work on the Shuttle program to be a member of the NASA family. In fact, here at JPL we ONLY do work with robotic space exploration that doesn't involve humans in space.

Jose: Does NASA work with all different types of Engineers?
Pat_Woida> Yes. We need specialist for all aspects ofthe mission. Optical Engineers like me to design and build cameras, software engineers to control them, communication engineers to let us communicate in space and on Mars, mechanical engineers for the robotic arm, aerospace engineers, and so on.

Jose: Does NASA work with all different types of Engineers?
Pat_Woida> PHX is so complete, no one person is an expert in everything, so it takes a large team to make a mission work.

MahFL: What is the overall thought on a sucessfull landing, percentage wise ?
Mark_Garcia> We don't put an actual number on the probability of a successful landing, but we do compute our chances of landing in an safe area and with plenty of fuel left over, etc. We usually try for 95% chance or better of landing "in spec", if that answers your question.

Cassie_Bowman: Here's a question for both Mark and Pat: When you were in high school, what did you know about engineering?
Pat_Woida> I started out more on a science than engineering background. I found myself with a desire to put into action scientific priciples which is why I'm an enginner.

Cassie_Bowman: Here's a question for both Mark and Pat: When you were in high school, what did you know about engineering?
Pat_Woida> grew up in Milwaukee, most engineers were mechancal designers supporting the factories. I've wanted to do space exploration since kindegarden. I grew up thru

Cassie_Bowman: Here's a question for both Mark and Pat: When you were in high school, what did you know about engineering?
Pat_Woida> mecury, gemini, and Apoolo space program

Cassie_Bowman: Here's a question for both Mark and Pat: When you were in high school, what did you know about engineering?

Mark_Garcia> Not a whole lot, other than it had something to do with math and physiscs which I was pretty good at. I went to College still not knowing what I wanted to do, so I majored in Physics so I'd have a broad base of scientific understanding. It's really helped me in my engineering career (which began during my Sophomore year of college with an internship @ JPL).

Cassie_Bowman> JPL is NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA
stephanie: is it scary to be in a space ship??
Pat_Woida> I'm sure it could be. Our astronauts train for the conditions and are quite brave

Cassie_Bowman: Here's another great question that came via email: If you didn't work on space missions, what would you do?
Pat_Woida> It would be hard to say, I've been doing space research my whole life since I started college. I guess I wouldn't be as happy. I have done some work on medical optics and also things like commerical products like Solar Binoculars

newmars.com: What's the bang up to the minute status of Phoenix?
Mark_Garcia> Right now we're in Cruise phase, but ready to start kicking into high gear with the last 60 days of preparation prior to Mars Entry. Our teams have a week long test to simulate the final 4 days prior to Entry coming up in 2 weeks and we're really busy getting ready for that. The spacecraft continues to perform flawlessly and we've almost finished all the instrument checkouts we had planned prior to launch. All in all, things are looking pretty good.

Cassie_Bowman: Here's another great question that came via email: If you didn't work on space missions, what would you do?
Pat_Woida> looking at the sun.

DEChengst: How does the SSI on Phoenix compare to PanCam on MER ?
Pat_Woida> We actually use the flight spare CCDs from Pancam for the SSI camera.

Cassie_Bowman: Here's another great question that came via email: If you didn't work on space missions, what would you do?
Mark_Garcia> I wanted to be a pro football player, but realistically would probably be doing some other type of engineering, although probably not having as much fun.

DEChengst: How does the SSI on Phoenix compare to PanCam on MER ?
Pat_Woida> We have altered the field of view so we have the highest resolution of any camera yet sent to Mars. So the CCDs have the same psectral response, and we use many similar filters since theyare tied to things like water vapor lines. One advantage i like, is the eyes sit the same distance above the ground as my own. So the view you get for PHX is the same as if you were standing on Mars yourself.

Cassie_Bowman: A student asked, via email, "What did your family think when you told them you wanted to be an engineer?"
Pat_Woida> After years of obscure optics research developing new materials for space, it was the first time my family understood what I was doing.

EDL: Airbags have apparently reached their limit, so what is the maximum payload that a Phoenix/Viking type lander can deliver to the surface?
Mark_Garcia> That's a great question, although one that I'm not completely qualifed to answer. Maybe we can table this until the 3:30 session when we'll have an actual PHX EDL engineer on the chat. That said, I will say that Mars Science Lab (MSL) - the rover launching next year - is enormous and will be the biggest thing we've landed on Mars.

Cassie_Bowman: Pat, For those who aren't familiar... what are CCDs?
Pat_Woida> Charged Couple Devices. They are the actual photosensitive electronic arrays that you can find in Video Cameras and Digital Camera.

Cassie_Bowman: Another question: Do you interact with scientists in your job? What is that like?
Pat_Woida> There is a large integrated team. There are no as distict lines as you would think.

Cassie_Bowman: Another question: Do you interact with scientists in your job? What is that like?
Pat_Woida> physically during opeartions all the enginners sit a table surrponded by the rest of the science team. It's beena great treat to work with people whose papers and books i've read. Wonderful group.

Jose: What type of different careers are offered at NASA, and what is needed to get in such careers?
Mark_Garcia> You can pretty much name the field and chances are there's a job for you here at NASA. We have people with jobs that require degrees in finance, accounting, law, etc., but the overwhelming majority are engineers and scientists. Now there are many different types of engineers (Mechanical, Aerospace, Electrical, Systems) and scientists specialze in numerous fields, so I'd say that there's opportunity here for just about anything you'd like.

Cassie_Bowman> I'd also add that there are jobs at NASA in education, art, videography, graphic design... you name it! One common thread is a fascination with space!
Aikin_Elementary: Is it hard to control robots on Mars from here on Earth?
Pat_Woida> Yes. Because Mars is so far away it take 20 minutes for light to travel there. We also have to coordinate with relays in Mars orbit. So we get one chance a day to send up commands forthe PHX to run the whole day and don't get inforamtion back until the next day. So you really have ot send up near perfect commands all the time because of the delay.

Jose: What can I do to try and get a great career like you guys at NASA, now that I'm a Senior and choose to follow up an Engineering major?
Pat_Woida> I like to recommend Science Fairs. Its a great way to stand out Nationally and internationally. I met one student her Jr year at a Science Fair doing a Mars project. She spent her senior year working on our mission!

Cassie_Bowman: A question that came in via email is, "When you control the lander are you using something like a remote control?"
Mark_Garcia> No, not so much. The basic problem is that it takes 15 minutes to send a signal ("commands") to Mars, and 15 minutes to see the results of that command ("telemetry"). Once we're on the Surface we'll send instructions based on science we want to accomplish and using all the data we've collected about the site: pictures, temperature readings, power predictions, etc. Then we'll execute those instructions and report how we did. That data comes back down and we plan the next day based on how we achieved the goals we set out for today.

Cassie_Bowman: A student asked, via email, "What did your family think when you told them you wanted to be an engineer?"
Mark_Garcia> The thought it was a good fit. Then again, I don't think they totally understood what I was signing up for at the time (neither did I), but they're pretty jazzed for how things turned out.

Cassie_Bowman: Here's another question via email for both our engineers: Do you have any hobbies?
Pat_Woida> I've enjoied SCUBA diving and play musical synthesizer. The regular stuff, I enjoy SCIFI TV and Movies. In fact I came back from Launch in August and went to Las Vegas to give a presentation on PHX at the Startrek Convention.

newmars.com: What's the greatest risk after landing to the success of the mission?
Mark_Garcia> I'm sure that different folks will have different answers to this, but if we don't get our solar arrays out within a day of landing, the mission is over (won't be able to generate power).

H__: Is the PHX remote software update system openly documented on the internet ?
Mark_Garcia> No.

bulldog08: What is each of your specific jobs at NASA?
Pat_Woida> Presently I have many interdisciplinary roles the Phoenix Mars Mission. I was originally the Test Director for the completion of the Optical Microscope, Robotic Arm Camera and Stereo Surface Imager Instruments. Currently a member of the hardware integration and software test engineering team at the projects Payload Interoperability Testbed as well as an integral member of the Mars Surface Operations Team. I am 25 year veteran in the development of innovative Space Optics and Telescopes. Primarily working on technology development of Optics for Airborne and Space Telescopes.

newmars.com: How many living organisms are there on board?
Pat_Woida> The hope would be none of course.

newmars.com: How many living organisms are there on board?
Pat_Woida> We have sterilized the Robotic Arm and Robotic Arm Camera that will go sub-surface by a 50 hour 110C bakeout. So the arm should be sterile. Also the high UV on the surface will clean the lander as well.

DEChengst: Some time ago I read about Phoenix possibly kicking up too much dust during landing. What's the latest news on this possible problem ?
Mark_Garcia> We have analysed this question quite a bit. The conclusion is that we will kick up dust, but how much and for how long it stays airborne is fairly uncertain. Because of this, we conservatively wait 15 minutes before opening our solar arrays after landing for the dust to settle.

DEChengst: Will there be a rawimages webpage like MER has, so we space geek get to play with our imaging softeware ?
Mark_Garcia> This is a better question for Pat, but my understanding is that there WILL be such a page available.

Cassie_Bowman: Here's another question via email for both our engineers: Do you have any hobbies?
Mark_Garcia> I like to play basketball and garden, but mostly I like playing with me 5-year old. Kindergarten is too much fun!

bulldog08: What kind of robots are you using on your missions on Mars?
Pat_Woida> The PHX itself is a robot. It has a computer brain, and arm for digging, the SSi is the robots eye helped by RAC and OM for close up views. The TEGA is the nose and MECA is the tastebuds. It works on it's own and can for days if need be.

Cassie_Bowman> For those of you interested in student opportunities at NASA, check out https://university.gsfc.nasa.gov/application/ http://nasajobs.nasa.gov/ (student opportunities) Or, if you have a NASA Center near you, take a look at their Center webpage.

PJ: The "air bag" landings of the Mars Rovers were so successful, why didn't you use that method instead of what looks like a very risky rocket landing?
Pat_Woida> The Rovers are designed to bounce around on the surface.

PJ: The "air bag" landings of the Mars Rovers were so successful, why didn't you use that method instead of what looks like a very risky rocket landing?
Pat_Woida> PHX is effectively a remote geologist with on board labs.

bulldog08: What is each of your specific jobs at NASA?
Mark_Garcia> My job (since launch) is to oversee all aspects of the flying mission during the interplanetary Cruise phase to Mars. I'm actually the deputy of the person who has overall responsibility during Cruise (the Mission Manager), but there's still much to do. Mission managers approve all commands radiated to the spacecraft, have final say on what activities will or will not be done, make sure that everything we send to the spacecraft is adequately tested on the ground, and generally attend a ton of meetings!

PJ: The "air bag" landings of the Mars Rovers were so successful, why didn't you use that method instead of what looks like a very risky rocket landing?
Pat_Woida> of the digging aspect, we have to be firmly planted on the ground. This design does not lend itself to bouncing around and we could upright ourselves.

newmars.com: Will there be a realtime telemetry display on the internet?
Mark_Garcia> I don't think that's actually possible due to the restrictions that are placed on that data.

newmars.com: When will the first images be available?
Pat_Woida> They should come from me on May 25th, my guess about 5pm local time.

newmars.com: When will the first images be available?
Pat_Woida> expect images of the footpad (like Viking) the two solar panels and to confirm the Robotic Arm (and RAC) are free of the biobarrier.

H__: Do you build/use any robots in your spare time, at home ?
Pat_Woida> I've taught my kids about building robots and solder electronics kind of thing.

Aikin_Elementary: How many robotic systems can you control at one time?
Mark_Garcia> I'm not sure I'm answering your question exactly as you expected, but right now JPL has something like 19 active missions. The Deep Space Network (DSN), which JPL also runs, communicates with at least twice that many missions, all day, every day. As they say, we can't leave earth without them!

H__: Do you build/use any robots in your spare time, at home ?
Pat_Woida> also have a selection of Robot toys ranging from Lego Mindstorms to

H__: Do you build/use any robots in your spare time, at home ?
Pat_Woida> R2DR that can be programed.

Neemo: Has anything been determined to minimize the possible contamination of surface material by "jetwash" from the landing rockets?
Pat_Woida> My focus has been to keep the payload from contaminating Mars. Mark?

Cassie_Bowman> Hi all, We have about 5 more minutes left in the chat, so please submit any last questions... Remember, you can also log on at 3:30 p.m. PT today to chat with some different Phoenix Mission engineers.

newmars.com: Thanks for answering so many questions!
Pat_Woida> You're welcome, I'm glad you are interested

Cassie_Bowman: Another email question: How long will it take Phoenix to get to Mars?
Mark_Garcia> The entire journey from launch to landing is 295 days, but right now we are 95 days from landing (at 4:30 PDT on May 25th). Yikes!

Cassie_Bowman: Via email: What other classes besides math and science would you recommend for students interested in engineering?
Pat_Woida> Its hard to go wrong with Math & Science. But let me offer this. Engineering

newmars.com: Thanks for answering so many questions!
Mark_Garcia> You're welcome. Just wish I was a better typist. ;-]

newmars.com: Can we get a copy of the chat log?
Cassie_Bowman> We'll be posting the log from this chat on this same page later today.

Cassie_Bowman: Via email: What other classes besides math and science would you recommend for students interested in engineering?
Pat_Woida> are very focused. You should really get your share of History and Art while you can. Also the greatest asset you can have is excellent writing and presentational skills. If you can present your idea effectively, you will not get them supported.

bulldog08: Can you watch the Office in space if you are on a mission?
Mark_Garcia> You probably could, but we tend to use the communication "bandwidth" to Earth for more important transmissions.

Aikin_Elementary: Do you think it is possible that a human can walk on Mars?
Mark_Garcia> Great question. I think a person could definitely walk on Mars, but getting there and back is (currently) an extremely difficult challenge. But it is possible.

Cassie_Bowman> Okay, we're going to wrap up (and let our Engineers have a chance to answer any last questions they have in the queue). Thanks to everyone for participating! We'll post the log from this chat and the chat this afternoon so you can refer back. Thanks for taking part in our National Engineers Week chat!

Aikin_Elementary: Thank you for answering so many questions from our third graders. Now we all want to grow up and work for NASA!
Mark_Garcia> Awesome!

Cassie_Bowman> A big thank you to Pat and Mark for sharing their insights and knowledge!

Aikin_Elementary: Thank you for answering so many questions from our third graders. Now we all want to grow up and work for NASA!
Pat_Woida> It has been very rewarding. It's a continous thrill to walk out at night, see Mars in the sky, and know I'm helpingot put a robot on that little point of light in the sky.

Cassie_Bowman: Via email: What other classes besides math and science would you recommend for students interested in engineering?
Mark_Garcia> I went to a liberal arts college, so I had to take all the humanities... and I'm very glad that I did. I can't recommend more highly that students take a diversity of classes, especially if you don't know exactly what you want to do the moment you set foot on a college campus.

Cassie_Bowman> Thanks, everyone! Feel free to come back for our next chat in about 4 hours.