The Jet Propulsion Laboratory - Exploring the Solar System

Lorne Trottier
15 April 2013

Group Photo with the Curiosity duplicate at JPL; our guide Michel Ingham on left of rover, yours truly on the right

To date in this series of articles I have described some of the most exciting missions to explore the bodies of our solar system. These include the Mars Rover Curiosity and the Cassini- Huygens probe to Saturn and its moon Titan, as well as the historic Voyager missions and their Grand Tour of the four gas giant planets and their moons. All of these missions and the vast majority of US planetary spacecraft have one thing in common: they were all mostly built and operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL in Pasadena, CA.

I recently had the privilege to visit JPL with some members of my family thanks to my connection to McGill University. A McGill Engineering graduate named Michel Ingham, who works at JPL, had offered to conduct a private guided tour of JPL to a select group of alumni. Since I have been a lifelong space enthusiast, this was an opportunity that I could not pass up!

This was my second visit to JPL. The first was more than 20 years ago when my two daughters were 8 and 12 years old respectively. We were on a family trip to the West Coast of Canada and the US. When we were in the Los Angeles area, I decided to forgo a visit to Disneyland and take the family on the public tour of JPL. We had already been to Disneyworld in Florida, so this wasn’t really much of a sacrifice. At that time, JPL was already something of a legend, and the visit was memorable. My eldest daughter later won a prize at the Montreal Science Fair for her project about the Voyager missions. She and her partner even made the cover of a children’s science magazine.

I first heard about JPL in 1962 at the age of 14 when the Mariner II spacecraft made the first flyby of another planet: Venus. I still remember that this major event made the cover of Time magazine. Mariner II confirmed that the surface of Venus is hot enough to melt lead, with a surface temperature of over 460 degrees Celsius.

Origin of JPL and Explorer 1: The First US Satellite

JPL has played a major role in the US space program from the very beginning. JPL was founded as a small laboratory in the 1930s by a small group of engineers and enthusiasts affiliated with Caltech University. Their ambitious goal was to develop experimental rockets that could eventually be used for space exploration. They made slow but steady progress on a very limited budget until the advent of World War II. At that point the US government became very interested because of the German V-2 rockets that were terrorizing London. Now money was no object and JPL developed much more capable rockets. But the German rocket scientists, headed by Werner von Braun, were further ahead. After surrendering to the US, they began developing much larger rockets for the US Army.

1957 was designated by the United Nations as the International Geophysical Year. This was an international program dedicated to improving the scientific understanding of the earth. One of the goals was to build the first Earth-orbiting satellites. The United States program was called Vanguard. The policy at the time was that the project should use civilian rockets – not military ones. President Eisenhower wanted to establish that satellites could fly freely over any country including the Communist Soviet Union. He believed that a civilian scientific satellite would be accepted, and that this would later facilitate the acceptance of spy satellites.

Photo 1 Explorer 1 First US satellite launched Jan. 31, 1958.The Soviet Union surprised the world by launching Sputnik 1 on Oct 4, 1957. There was tremendous pressure on President Eisenhower to respond. The Vanguard rocket blew up on the launch pad on Dec. 6, 1957. Dr. Werner von Braun and the US Army had earlier proposed using a proven rocket that they already had developed to place a satellite in orbit, but they had been given strict orders not to do so. The President wanted the civilian Vanguard project to take precedence. With Sputnik 1 flying over the US every 90 minutes, the decision changed virtually overnight, and von Braun was given the go ahead to launch a satellite.

Fortunately, von Braun had secretly kept a spare rocket in inventory – just in case. Working closely with JPL, it took only 84 days of intense activity for everything to come together with the successful launch of the Explorer 1 satellite on Jan. 31, 1958. A full-scale model of Explorer 1 was on display in the visitor’s center at JPL (photo right).

Unlike the Soviet Sputnik, these early Explorer satellites carried scientific instruments, including a radiation detector. This enabled the first major scientific discovery of the space age: the Van Allen radiation belts that surround the Earth and are named after the scientist who discovered them. This established an entirely new scientific discipline known as “space weather.” We now know that life on the Earth’s surface is largely protected from the deadly radiation in space by the Earth’s magnetic field and the Van Allan radiation belts.

The Evolution of JPL

The space age was born in the midst of the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Within a year after the launch of Sputnik 1, President Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and JPL became a part of it. Under its director William Pickering, JPL changed its direction to focus almost exclusively on building satellites rather than rockets. When President Kennedy made his famous speech in May 1961 about sending astronauts to the Moon, JPL was chosen to build robotic spacecraft to pave the way for the astronauts.

Photo 2 Ranger – Mariner II SpacecraftBut Pickering and JPL made the fateful decision to build robotic spacecraft capable of journeys to the planets, not just the Moon – the Soviets had already done that. In the space race, no one had yet reached the planets. Thus the Mariner II spacecraft (photo right), the first successful planetary mission, was a virtual copy of the Ranger spacecraft designed to take close-up photos of the Moon. The Ranger spacecraft included components like solar panels that were not needed for the short trip to the Moon, but were essential for longer planetary missions. Mariner II was followed by the Mariner IV mission in 1964 – the first to Mars. Ever since, JPL has been the global leader in exploring the solar system. JPL spacecraft have visited every planet, including several asteroids and comets.

Highlights of Our Tour

VoyagerJPL is an impressive facility with approximately 5,000 employees and dozens of buildings on a sprawling 177 acre campus in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains just outside Pasadena. The visitor’s center contains a small museum with models – many of them full-size replicas – of the dozens of spacecraft build by JPL over the years. One of the highlights is a full-scale model of the historic Voyager spacecraft (photo right top) and the famous gold record (photo right bottom) that I described in my previous article: The Grand Tour: The Historic Voyager Missions.

First Picture from MarsAnother highlight was a hand-coloured computer printout of the first picture of Mars (photo left). When the Mariner IV spacecraft transmitted the first picture of Mars in 1964, the scientists were too excited to wait for their primitive computer to complete its lengthy processing of the image. Instead, they took a computer printout of the numbers that represented this image and used markers to colour it - a kind of paint by numbers. This hand-coloured printout hangs proudly in the hallway of one of the engineering buildings we visited.

Main Control Room & closeup of the primary control screenThe main control room for the Deep Space Network (photo right top) is very impressive. NASA has a network of three tracking stations strategically located around the world in California, Spain and Australia, each of which is equipped with a collection of large radio “dishes.” As the Earth rotates, NASA can communicate with a spacecraft anywhere in the solar system 24 hours a day. These dishes are so sensitive that they can receive the faint signal from the 60 watt transmitter on Voyager 1, which at a distance of 18,463,000,000 km, is the most distant manmade object. Travelling at the speed of light, it takes more than 17 hours for this signal to reach Earth. NASA has approximately 30 active spacecraft throughout the solar system – including 4 active spacecraft at Mars. I’ve included a close up photo of the primary control screen (photo right bottom), which shows the three tracking stations with the names of spacecraft being tracked. It’s quite a complex operation to manage these tracking stations and all those spacecraft and not lose any data!

But the most memorable part of the tour was the “Mars yard”, which is a giant "sandbox" in which a fully functioning replica of the Curiosity Rover is tested (first photo below). On the way to the “yard” we passed a “Rover crossing” sign (second photo below) – these engineers are serious, but they also have a sense of humour. The rocks and soil in this yard are similar to those found on Mars. While in the “yard” we got to see a full-scale working model of the Curiosity Rover (third photo below). It’s surprisingly big – the size of a small car. Our group posed for a picture (fourth photo below). As we watched, the engineer was doing some tests on the robot arm. We heard some whirring and zzzz type sounds as the arm moved. She also activated the percussion drill on the arm that made a loud rat-tat-tat noise, which would surely wake up any Martians who might be sleeping nearby!

The Mars Yard, Curiosity Crossing, Curiosity replica & the group with Curiosity!


The Curiosity Rover is now in a quiet period due to the fact that Mars is currently in “solar conjunction” – meaning it is on the far side of the sun as seen from Earth. Due to interference from the sun – which currently sits between the Earth and Mars – communications are compromised. Full operations will be resumed once Mars moves away from behind the sun in early May. In my last article on Voyager, I reported that Curiosity was preparing to use its drill on an interesting set of set of sedimentary rocks. The exciting results from the chemical analysis of this material were announced shortly before conjunction.

The analysis shows that these rocks had been formed in fresh water. The rocks also contain most of the essential elements for life, including certain minerals that bacteria can use for “food.” Scientists believe that microbial life – if any existed – could have survived in such an environment (Curiosity Rover Hits Paydirt: The current plan is that once normal operations are resumed, Curiosity will stay at this location for several weeks to conduct more detailed investigations. If Curiosity gets extremely lucky, it might find organic compounds.

If ever you and your family visit the Los Angeles area, consider contacting the JPL to reserve a tour: Next to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, this is the most interesting and exciting place to visit for anyone with an interest in space exploration. For me, it beats Disneyland!

Part of Lorne's Lens on Space

Lorne Trottier

Lorne shares with us his love for space exploration in our Lorne's Lens on Space series!

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