On Thursday July 25th we visited the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). After a thorough security check we were allowed to enter JPL grounds. JPL was founded in the mid 1930s when Caltech scientists interested in rocket technology moved to the JPL ground in Pasadena. In 1936 they created their first successful rocket and the U.S. Army quickly funded JPL. In 1958, when NASA was founded, JPL moved from the U.S. Army to NASA. JPL still has about 20% non-NASA related activities. JPL is currently still owned by Caltech, but funded by NASA. JPL currently has about 6000 employees, of which about a third are scientists or engineers. JPL is approximately 0.7 square kilometers, larger than Disneyland according to the tour guide. The annual budget for 2018 was $2.5 billion. JPL gets about 40000 visitors a year and sometimes 200 on a single day.
We were first shown a life-size model of the Curiosity Mars Rover. Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 and is used for Mars exploration and to analyze the soil on Mars. Next we got to see the mission control center. From here, most launches are monitored. There are people in the control center 24 hours a day in order to monitor most mission at all times. To keep in contact with active missions, JPL uses NASA’s Deep Space Network. There are antennas in California (Barstow), Canberra and Madrid. With these antennas JPL is able to keep in contact with and gather data from interplanetary spacecraft, such as the Curiosity Rover or Voyager 2.
We then walked past the water treatment plant of JPL. This plant is used to filter the water supply of substances that were not always disposed in a safe manner in the past. We were then shown the Vehicle Systems Testbed of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, which launched the Curiosity Rover. In the Vehicle Systems Testbed they use two rovers similar to the Curiosity rover to simulate operations here on Earth. They use a nearly identical rover to test a lot of functionalities, however they also use a rover with a third of the mass to more accurately test operations which would be influenced by the gravity of Mars, which is about a third of the gravity on Earth. To use the rover on a similar surface JPL has created a ‘Marsyard,’ which has a very similar surface as Mars.
Next, we were shown testbeds for Mars 2020 and Project InSight. Mars 2020 is a mission which will send a new rover to Mars in 2020. This rover will collect rocks and put them into one place. A later mission can then pick up these rocks. Project InSight uses seismic experiments on the surface of Mars.
We were then shown the Explorer 1 rocket, which was the rocket used to launch JPL’s first satellite, back in 1958. We were also shown replicas of the Juno spacecraft, which orbits around Jupiter, the Voyager spacecraft, the Cassini spacecraft and Galileo, which studied Jupiter.
Finally we were shown one of JPL’s cleanrooms. In this cleanroom we could see people workin on the Mars 2020 rover. We could also see the descent and cruise stage of the Mars 2020 rocket. The cleanroom has class 10000. In comparison the University of Twente cleanroom has class 100000.
In the afternoon we all had some spare time. In the evening we had dinner with all the participants and supervisors one last time before we all head back to the Netherlands.