DPS-EPSC 2016: Press tour of JPL
November 11, 2016

Anita Heward is the press officer for Europlanet 2020 RI and the joint DPS-EPSC meeting.

The highlight of my trip last month to Pasadena for the Joint DPS-EPSC Meeting 2016 was a tour of the legendary Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which celebrated its 80th anniversary on Halloween this year.

The tour kicked off in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility. From a viewing gallery, we could see into the facility’s Class 10,000 cleanroom. The engineers working in this environment wear full protective gear and take air showers before entry to remove particles that might contaminate spacecraft.

The high bay clean room in JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility

One of the pieces of hardware under construction in the cleanroom was the enormous heat-shield that will protect NASA’s Mars 2020 mission during its initial plunge through the Martian atmosphere. We were given an overview of the science that Mars 2020 will carry out on Mars by the mission’s Principal Investigator, Ken Farley. You can read more about that here.

The heatshield for the Mars 2020 mission

Next up came a visit to the Earth Science facilities, where we viewed a 3D film and were given a demonstration of visualisation of multiple types of Earth observation data. If you want to keep track of sea surface temperature, CO2 concentrations, the Earth’s changing gravity, or have your picture taken with one of NASA’s fleet of satellites, you can download ‘Earth Now’ and ‘Spacecraft 3D’ Apps.

NASA’s Eyes on the Earth interactive shows its fleet of Earth observation satellites. Credit: NASA

Our next stop was to find out about development of ion drive propulsion. Ion drives are particularly valuable for long-distance planetary missions, especially those visiting multiple targets, as they provide a highly efficient way of building up acceleration. An ion drive was first used on the Deep Space 1 mission, which launched in 1998 and had flyby encounters with asteroid 9969 Braille and comet 19P/Borrelly, and have since been used successfully on the Dawn mission to the dwarf planets Vesta and Ceres — as well as ESA’s SMART-1 mission to the moon.

The ion drive test facility

No tour of JPL would be complete without a visit to Mission Control — the scene of ‘Seven minutes of terror‘, while the Mars Science Laboratory team held their breath to find out whether the sky crane had successfully landed the spacecraft and Curiosity rover on the Red Planet.

Mission Control in the JPL Spacecraft Operations Facility

During our visit it was rather more serene.

Mission Control in the JPL Spacecraft Operations Facility

But I did get to sit in the ‘Curiosity Mission Ace’ chair, which made my Space Geek day 🙂


Our final stop was the Mars Yard, where we met the engineering model of Curiosity. Since landing on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has travelled nearly 15 km through the Gale Crater to the base of Mount Sharp.

Engineering model of the Curiosity rover

The engineering model is regularly active to help the Curosity team figure out how the rover on Mars can achieve maneouvres, such as climbing steep slopes or getting into position to drill samples, and the best way of minimising wear and tear on the spacecraft’s wheels.

JPL’s Mars Yard

Many thanks to the AAS press officer, Rick Fienberg, and Jia-Rui Cook and the press team at JPL for organizing the tour.