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Mars Landing from a Local Angle

Polly Estabrook (center) of Windsor Square seen with two members of JPL’s Mars Science Lab Tone Detection Team:  Melissa Soriano (left) and Kamal Oudrhiri (right.)

The science world is abuzz with the new Mars rover, “Curiosity” due to land on Sunday August 5th at about 10 pm, leading the Buzz to wonder if there is a local connection to this venture far, far away. It didn’t take us long to find the link: Windsor Square resident Polly Estabrook.

Mars in “true color” as seen through NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, 1999

Estabrook, a Van Ness resident, wife of UCLA Professor Mark DeAntonio and mother of two grown children Jasper and Charlotte, is a member of the Communications Architectures and Research Section at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and part of the Mars Science Laboratory Tone Detection Team. That’s a mouthful, but essentially, she works on the communications systems used in interplanetary exploration.

When the mission is as far away as Mars, the demands put on communications are tough: transmitting from deep space involves propagation of low power signals over great distances. In the case of this mission, the initial signals sent are not the stream of digital data as you’d expect – but as tonal beeps that tell the story of the landing with a fourteen minute delay. “The state of the mission can be determined by detecting the tones sent by the spacecraft where each tone represents a specific spacecraft state, ie. turn to entry completed, deceleration speed, or state of the battery charge,” Estabrook told the Buzz.

“Curiosity: Robot Geologist and Chemist in One” photo courtesy of JPL / NASA.

Trained as an electrical engineer, Estabrook was a key figure in the 2004 Mars Rover mission, and is serving as more of a consultant to the current Curiosity mission. She’s been spending long days and nights at JPL with colleagues as the team ‘practices’ receiving signals from Curiosity. “As the spacecraft with the rover descends into Gale Crater on Mars, it will execute several turns to stay on course, be buffeted by winds, swing at the end of the parachute, and then dangle from the spacecraft,  all the while transmitting signals that will first be captured by an antenna in Canberra Australia, the only place on earth that will be able to receive the signal.  From there the signal tones will come via fiber optic cable to us at JPL and we’ll have to extract them from all the surrounding ‘noise’ and determine what state the rover is in.” Estabrook went on to explain more refined digital data will also be transmitted to two orbiters near Mars, one of which is aligned to receive rover data just after Entry for immediate transmission to earth, while the other will store all data for retransmission post landing.

To understand just how complicated this Mars landing is, take a look at the JPL simulation video “Seven Minutes of Terror” below. It is a classy Hollywood-like presentation that gives non-scientists a visual understanding of the mission. Estabrook told the Buzz that “this simulation movie, which has been developed over the last 6 years of the project, helps everyone, even the scientists, to better visualize and conceptualize how this landing is going to work. It’s a kind of ‘group think.’ ”

“Not all the scientists associated with JPL live in Pasadena or La Canada as one might think,” Estabrook told the Buzz, noting that many live in Hollywood or the Westside or the Hancock Park area as she has for some 22 years. In the very scientific fields at JPL perhaps 10% are women, but in implementing projects there may be as many as 35% women. “Women are great innovators and team players,” Estabrook shared.

Up next?  Estabrook is tasked with communications needs for future human missions exploring other planets, the moon, or perhaps even an asteroid.  Human missions, unlike this August non-human, data-driven mission to Mars, require much more complicated communication systems to keep the humans connected, to their colleagues at the Johnson Space Center and at NASA and to their families and friends. That is, of course, all tenuous due to to NASA’s budget, especially for planetary exploration. In the meantime, our local scientist will keep us connected with that new fellow Curiosity, who will hopefully land on Mars August 5th, and take a look around.

JPL: Mars Science Lab 

LA Times: Mars Rover is a robot geologist with a lab in its belly Despite Risk Scientists Bet on Rover

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Julie Grist
Julie Grist
Julie co-founded the Larchmont Buzz with fellow buzzer Mary Hawley in 2011 and served as Editor, Publisher and writer for the hive for many years until the sale of the Buzz in August 2015. She is still circling the hive as an occasional writer.

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