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Interacting with NASA Landers from Your Own PC

As an astronomy enthusiast, I try to keep up on all the various goings-on in astronomy news. Astronomy, being a primarily visual science, often lends itself quite well to computer visualization. Recently, NASA landed on Mars again, this time near one of the Martian poles in an attempt to study the ice and landscape of this frigid region. Is there water ice there, or just dry ice made of frozen carbon dioxide? How much of each? That’s what the Phoenix Mars Lander was sent to try to unravel.

Solar Power Grid Unfurled—image courtesy of NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

Solar Power Grid Unfurled—image courtesy of NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

As an editor for the Wolfram Demonstrations Project, I often get quite interested in new astronomy-related Demonstrations. One particular set, written by Sándor Kabai, focuses on the mechanics of not only the Phoenix Mars Lander, but probes from the past as well.

Landers, as opposed to other spacecraft, must overcome unique design challenges. Unlike orbiters, which typically have only sensors and cameras, landers usually have mechanical components to directly manipulate the surrounding environment like an astronaut could. These components come in many forms, such as wheels, scoops, drilling instruments and so on, which make landers much more interesting to visualize interactively. Although these are not strictly astronomy, more engineering, few would argue that they are space-related and therefore pretty cool!

For example, with the following Demonstration you can explore the solar panels of the Phoenix Mars Lander:

Solar Panel of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander

The Phoenix Lander has a scoop intended to sample the surrounding soil to determine compositions. Such scooping techniques are not new to NASA. The old lunar landers are still useful today, in training future engineers how such machines work. The following Demonstrations show a model of the Surveyor lunar lander with the scoop mechanism included, the robotic scoop and the lander legs in more detail:

Hunveyor-Surveyor Field
Work SimulationsHunveyor-Surveyor Field Work Simulation
Nuremberg ScissorsNuremberg Scissors Surveyor-Hunveyor TripodSurveyor-Hunveyor Tripod

Prior to these more advanced landers, Russia also landed probes on the moon, including the first soft landing of Luna-9, which returned the first photographic panoramas from the lunar surface in 1966:
Luna Landers on the Moon

There are a number of other applications for such robotic devices as antenna deployment or reflecting mirrors in space, not limited to landers:

AstroMesh ReflectorAstroMesh Reflector

With the interactivity available through these Demonstrations, NASA missions become more than just the pretty pictures we see in the news. They are given a kind of life that would not otherwise be available.


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1 comment

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