June 15, 2011
The events of today are something I'll never forget. After discovering the senses-stunning four-color world of super science, I found myself right there on Capitol Hill on the day Washington, D.C., was invaded by robots from outer space!
But don't be alarmed, they weren't robots from other planets sent to conquer Earth. In fact, it's the other way around -- the robot army that was on display here were all built by NASA to conquer unknowns about our universe. Here's what you need to know about all of these cool robots, where they're going, their missions, and their special abilities. Because, in the words of one of my co-workers, "Robots are our friends."
Destination: A twin of the one that was at NASA Day on the Hill was taken to the International Space Station in February on the STS-133 mission. (The one I saw take off.)
Mission: Aid astronauts with chores around the station, and, with future upgrades, help them during spacewalks.
Abilities: Each of Robonaut's arms can lift 20 pounds, and his humanlike hands enable him to use tools designed for humans with great precision. Also, he Tweets.
Name: Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)
Destination: Orbiting Earth, but staring at the sun, since February of last year.
Mission: Study the sun's behavior, surface, and "weather", including sunspots and solar flares, and determine how these events affect the Earth.
Abilities: SDO returns TONS of data about the sun- enough to fill the storage capacity of an average CD every 36 seconds, and the equivalent of downloading half a million songs to an MP3 player every day.
Destination: Launching in 2018 to L2. (A point a million and a half miles from Earth where the gravity of the sun and Earth cancel each other out and allow an object to stay in one place instead of being pulled towards either.)
Mission: The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST will be able to see even further back in time to study how the first galaxies formed. Like the Hubble, though, it will also be able to look in great detail at any other object scientists find interesting.
Abilities: Unlike the Hubble, JWST will see in infrared. It will be launched folded up inside of a rocket, but, once it reaches space, in the words of one of the engineers, it will "unfold like a Transformer". (According to that same engineer, a JWST Transformer would be called "Imaginator".)
Name: Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, named for physicist Enrico Fermi.
Destination: Orbiting the Earth since 2008.
Mission: Observe the sky at gamma-ray wavelengths, revealing features that are hidden to telescopes that only see visible light.
Abilities: No, it doesn't turn people into the Hulk. (It detects gamma rays, it doesn't create them.) But it can detect gamma-ray bursts -- intensely strong flashes of gamma radiation that happen very quickly and seem to come from the very edge of the Universe! For a long time, they were a mystery, but now scientists think they're caused by the deaths of gigantic stars very far away in super-supernovas.
Name: Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity
Destination: Leaving for Mars this fall!
Mission: To continue the work of previous missions investigating the geologic history of Mars and seeing if the red planet ever could have been the home of life.
Abilities: The size of a dune buggy, Curiosity is bigger and tougher than the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed on Mars in 2004. Its nuclear engine will let it keep on roving at night or in dust storms that would stop a solar-powered rover in its tracks. And it can also zap rocks with a laser beam to analyze what they're made out of. (Robots. With lasers. On Mars. Sometimes it's hard to tell what's reality and what's a comic book!)
After hanging with the robots, I ended up talking to Pat Forrester again, who acted like we were old friends and introduced me to a woman who worked in the Office of the Chief Technologist.
Leland Melvin, the astronaut I met at the World Science Festival who's now NASA's Associate Administrator for Education, was there, and he remembered me! When I first saw him, he was talking to a woman with blond hair who I also recognized, even though I'd never met her before -- Lori Garver, the NASA Deputy Administrator and Charles Bolden's second-in-command.
I have to admit, I was more than a little star-struck...