Mission Control to Mars: Launching the Next Mars Rover

By Rob Manning

In the wee morning hours of Nov. 26, 2011, scientists and engineers gathered in the mission control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help launch the next Mars rover, Curiosity. The mission’s chief engineer, Rob Manning, shares the developing story from the control room as tensions and excitement for a mission eight years in the making reached all new heights.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, sealed inside its payload fairing atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, sealed inside its payload fairing atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, launched on Nov. 26 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

5:45 a.m. PST (L-01:17:00)
I drove in this morning at 4:30 a.m. As usual, I was greeted by the cheery guards at the gate along with a small family of local deer, who keep sentry over a small patch of greenery at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

I quickly march into JPL’s mission control area to find the first shift quietly following the prelaunch procedure in sync with the Assembly, Test and Launch Operations (ATLO) procedure. They had been on station since 1:30 a.m. I tried that procedure at last week’s launch rehearsal and found the hour a bit unpleasant. Today, I am working on the Anomaly Response Team (ART) for post-launch anomalies. This means that if all goes well, I will have little to do but cheer when NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover launches. I have my own console where I can monitor both the spacecraft and listen to the voice nets (there are 10 of them!).

There are about 30 people here. Usually there are not as many, but today we have two people for every subsystem: power, thermal, propulsion, systems, fault protection, attitude control and management. I can hear the JPL ATLO test conductor, Art Thompson, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida double check that the right sequence files have been sent. One in particular has commands that tell the rover when to automatically transition into “eclipse” mode. This software mode puts the entire vehicle into the configuration needed for the period prior to separation from the Centaur. In particular this mode turns on the descent stage and cruise stage tank heaters. This timer should be set about 15 minutes after launch, which is planned for 7:02 am PST today. It is an absolute time so they have to send a new time every time we have a new launch attempt. The voice net that is the most interesting is the launch vehicle’s fueling operations. I have not heard that one before. They are more than 50 percent of the way through fueling!

It is fun to see the crowd here. No dress code, but some have come in ties, others with pink mohawks. Nice combo. Professionals all. The peanuts have already made the rounds.

6:15 a.m. (L-00:47:00)
Brian Portock, today’s flight director at JPL, just finished the launch poll of the room to see if everyone is go for transition to launch mode. This is a command to the rover that will put everything on the rover into a mode that is used for the first 15 minutes of flight. In particular, the heaters are all put into a launch and cruise configuration. We expect that the cruise stage heaters will be on more than off due to the air conditioning needed to keep the spacecraft cool (hot generators, you know).

6:29 a.m. (L-00:33:00)
Arm pyros! Once these relays are closed, they will be that way for the next 8.5 months.

6:32 a.m. (L-00:30:00)
The data rate is lowered to launch nominal to 200 bits per second. This will allow the rover’s data to flow to both the ground (via wires to the power van at the foot of the launch pad that provides power to the rover before launch) and to the launch vehicle where it will be available throughout launch (very cool). The JPL management showed up. Charles Elachi is behind me. My old friend and JPL Chief Engineer Brian Muirhead is here with his family.

6:40 a.m. (L-00:22:00)
The flight director is doing the launch poll for the team here at JPL: “All stations at JPL report go.” ATLO is going through its poll at lightening speed. All stations go. This is going fast! The weather guys report of scattered skies at 5,000 feet looks good. I am getting excited.

6:47 a.m. (L-00:15:00)
We lost the flow of data from MSL via the Atlas Space Flight Operations Center (ASOC) land lines, but they switch it to the radio path from the launch vehicle, and it starts flowing again.

7:00 a.m. (L-00:02:00)
All Quiet. Peanuts going around the room again … everyone is excited!

7:01 a.m. (L-00:01:20)
Everything is armed …

7:01 a.m. (L-00:00:30)

7:03 a.m. (L+00:01:00)

7:06 a.m. (L+00:04:00)
Fairing falls off! Wind on MSL ;)

7:07 a.m. (L+00:05:00)
Rob Zimmerman, our power systems engineer, reports power on solar arrays! 3.3 x 2 = 6. 7 amps! The spacecraft is still power-negative for a while which means that the battery is still discharging. We need more sunlight - very soon.

7:11 a.m. (L+00:09:00)
Getting intermittent data from the rover via the Centaur. So far, no computer reboots!

7:12 a.m. (L+00:10:00)
The ATLO test conductor reports that they are done building and launching MSL (hey, it took ‘em long enough! ;) ). We all cheer and smile. They are supporting the cruise team now.

7:14 a.m. (L+00:12:00)
We’ve reached the end of the first burn (MECO1). All is well. Eighteen minutes to second burn. Battery is charging at 4.3 amps for each battery — very good.

7:17 a.m. (L+00:15:00)
The eclipse-mode transition should be done; don’t know yet. Got it. The tank heaters should be on now; They are. Batteries are still charging at 95 percent state of charge (SOC).

7:35 a.m. (L+00:33:00)
Waiting for telemetry from over Africa …

7:36 a.m. (L+00:34:00)
It’s five minutes to MECO2, pushing out of Earth orbit. Heavy rover! KEEP PUSHING! Mars awaits.

7:39 a.m. (L+00:37:00)
The spacecraft is nearly out of Earth orbit, six minutes until separation from Centaur upper stage. Everyone is relaxed, but there’s not a lot of data from the rover. It still says it is in launch mode — missed the data that said eclipse.

7:42 a.m. (L+00:40:00)
MECO2. next is turn to separation attitude and spin up. Separation! We get a beautiful view of MSL spinning away from us — in the right attitude and the right direction! (› See Video)

Video: The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft separates from the upper stage of its Atlas V launch vehicle and heads on its way to Mars.
› See video

7:53 a.m. (L+00:51:00)
We have lock from NASA’s Deed Space Network in Canberra, Australia!

8:07 a.m. (L+01:05:00)
Data-slowing coming … All looks good, batteries at 98 percent. The rover is now in cruise mode. The heaters are on and cycling as designed. The spacecraft is spinning at 2.5 rotations per minute with only 1 degree of nutation (or swaying) — that is not a lot. The Atlas and Centaur did a fantastic job! The generator is working.

8:26 a.m. (L+01:24:00)
Now let’s try the uplink (sweep). Sweep is working! We have strong signals both ways. We are getting two-way Doppler - navigation says that the frequency is just a few hertz off so we had a very nominal injection to solar orbit. We can command!

Everyone is relaxed and trying to see if there is anything that looks wrong, but so far, nothing. Everything is fine. This is weird. Our bird is on its way - it’s where it belongs. We are happy to be in a completely new mode. No more last-minute fixes (to anything but the software). We have a lot to do, but at least our bird is on its way.

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    2 Responses to “Mission Control to Mars: Launching the Next Mars Rover”

  1. Steve Van Slyke Says:
    November 29th, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Rob, love your enthusiasm. Enjoyed watching your reaction to the Pathfinder and MER landings. Looking forward to your assessment of same for MSL. Hope to hear more from you about new developments, if any, on landing heavy mass payloads on Mars.

  2. almerio castro Says:
    January 14th, 2012 at 8:21 am

    As of 9 a.m. PST (noon EST, or 1700 Universal Time) on Saturday, Jan. 7, the spacecraft will have traveled 72.9 million miles (117.3 million kilometers) of its 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) flight to Mars. It will be moving at about 9,500 mph (15,200 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth and at about 69,500 mph (111,800 kilometers per hour) relative to the sun.
    Why the speeds relative to Earth and to the Sun are so different?

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