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Matthew (Matt) Wallace, Tuesday, 12-2-14 December 3, 2014

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Matthew (Matt) Wallace, Tuesday, 12-2-14


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Guest:  Matthew (Matt) Wallace.  Topics:  Mars science missions, Mars 2020, searching for lie on Mars.  Please direct all comments and questions regarding Space Show programs/guest(s) to the Space Show blog, https://thespaceshow.wordpress.com.  Comments and questions should be relevant to the specific Space Show program. Written Transcripts of Space Show programs are a violation of our copyright and are not permitted without prior written consent, even if for your own use. We do not permit the commercial use of Space Show programs or any part thereof, nor do we permit editing, YouTube clips, or clips placed on other private channels & websites. Space Show programs can be quoted, but the quote must be cited or referenced using the proper citation format. Contact The Space Show for further information. In addition, please remember that your Amazon purchases can help support The Space Show/OGLF. See http://www.onegiantleapfoundation.org/amazon.htm.  For those listening to archives using live365.com and rating the programs, please email me as to why you assign a specific rating to the show. This will help me bring better programming to the audience.

We welcomed Matt Wallace from our Hotel Mars program to his first appearance on The Space Show.  During the first segment of our 90 minute program, Matt talked about his early mission assignments when he first came to JPL, then his shift to the Mars program.  We also talked about how the science missions and rovers are designed, managed, and eventually flown.  I asked our guest several questions about the science missions such as how a Deimos mission might differ from a mission to the surface of Mars.  Later, a listener asked our guest about a Europa mission and how that would differ. While there are clearly differences in the missions to different destinations, the trade process, planning, team organization and such all work pretty much the same.  We did spend some time talking about a Europa mission as that mission is a favorite for many of us, our guest included Most of the Europa mission discussion was in the second segment.  Matt talked about the new science instruments that will be on board Mars 2020, plus the extensive use of heritage hardware. He also said about 70% of the original MSL & Curiosity team would be working on Mars 2020, an important fact in managing the mission, costs and assuring mission success.  Matt was asked why it was so hard to confirm microbial life on Mars now or in the past & if there was one instrument that could do that.  This proved to be a fascinating and detailed discussion so don’t miss it.  Many listener emails addressed the rover control process.  There is no real time communication with the rover so Matt explained how they send commands to the rover, how the rover processes those commands and the safeguards built into it to protect the rover from accidents, etc.  He also talked about communication windows with Earth, when antennas are pointed toward Mars, and the busy DSN.  Listener Alex asked him about the book “The Martian” and wanted to know that were an astronaut stuck on Mars or needing some sort of emergency gear or something, could a defunct Mars rover be cannibalized for parts and made to work for the purpose needed by the person on Mars.  Matt’s answer might surprise you.  Several listeners wanted to know about a human Mars mission being more efficient for finding life signs than a rover.  Matt explained the trades involved. Doug emailed in a similar question during the second segment.  Matt said its not either or.  Instead, the rovers and a human mission are synergistic with one another.  As the segment ended, our guest was asked if NASA/JPL would consider partnering with a private human mission such as Mars One to use Mars One crew members for science missions.

In the second segment, we talked about other Mars rovers and mission including Maven and Insight.  Next, the question came in about Europa that was mentioned in the earlier segment.  Doug not only asked his robotic vs. human question but he sent in another question regarding the sample return mission and what methods might be used for collecting multiple samples.  He suggested a few different collection methods.  Matt said they discuss these types of options but in the end the trades opt for simpler missions for a variety of reasons.  See what you think of his answer & post your comment on the blog.  John, a high school student, sent in a note about colleges and the best path to be able to work in the space industry.  Barbara sent in a note asking if the EDL would be Seven Minutes of Terror Part 2 since they were using the same system as used for Curiosity or would it be less stressful.  Matt said they would still be nail biting all the way down.

Please post your comments/questions on TSS blog above.  You can reach Matt Wallace through me at drspace@thespaceshow.com.


1. DDAY - December 6, 2014

“Rather, I suspect that it was decided to not confirm the presence of life on Mars and I think that this is why such instruments were specifically kept off the last 5 landers / rovers and the next 2. The obvious question is, “Why”?

The reason is simple: the government is hiding the space aliens from you. In fact, now that you have exposed their plot, you can assume that they are onto you, and you need to take extra precautions. Instead of a tinfoil hat, I suggest simply wearing a colander on your head. It works just as well, and it is easier to simply buy one and wear it on your head than to fashion a hat out of aluminum foil. Also, some colanders have little legs on them–get one with the legs. That way, you can hang small useful items from it when it, like a small flashlight, a pen (get one with the chain on it–steal it from a bank lobby), or a juice box.

I do, however, suggest that because the government is specifically going to monitor you with their spybeams you need to protect yourself in other ways. You need to put aluminum foil in your underpants. That is, assuming that you still plan on having children.

Good luck!

2. DougSpace - December 4, 2014

Something doesn’t seem exactly right about one of his answers. David asked whether there couldn’t be one specific instrument that would determine for sure whether there was or is life on Mars. He stated (correctly I think) that it was decided by the scientific community in the 90s to not look directly for life but to do it in a stepwise manner:
1) “go for the water”,
2) confirm habitability,
3) collect samples,
4) launch samples to Mars orbit,
5) bring those samples to Earth.
Then, and only then will we maybe be able to answer the question about life.

But think about it. This means that the definitive answer about life on Mars was put off from the 90s until when, the mid to late 20s? That’s putting off the question for something like 35 years!

And is confirmation of past water and “habitability” really necessary for later sampling missions? The past presence of water was already known. If Curiosity hadn’t found evidence of habitability in its specific location this would mean little about whether there was a habitable area elsewhere nor would it prevent later sampling missions which would be done for multiple reasons anyhow.

Further, it seems to me that there could be definitive instruments placed on rovers or landers that wouldn’t require bringing samples back to Earth. I see no particular reason why a 400+x microscope couldn’t be placed on a rover. For example, a bacteria with moving flagella would be unequivocal evidence of life — no sample rerun needed. Ancient bacteria ought to leave any number of molecular structures that are not produced abiotically. Now that we know about the presence of perchlorates, previous (e.g. labeled release) studies could be repeated that would give results evidencing life.

Rather, I suspect that it was decided to not confirm the presence of life on Mars and I think that this is why such instruments were specifically kept off the last 5 landers / rovers and the next 2. The obvious question is, “Why”?

I don’t know. My guess is that it was due to the fear of failure. If you don’t have a proof of life experiment then no one can say that you failed to find evidence for life. Rather, missions would be described as being successful at finding positive evidence for the conditions for life (conditions which were already known likely to be proved in the affirmative).

There is a danger in putting off definitive tests for life in situ. If another country had the capability to launch their own lander, using our own proven methods, then they could be the ones to prove past or current life on their very first try. That would be embarrassing, you think?

Matt - December 8, 2014

Good comment. I think also it is a flaw not to install experiments, which search directly for life, even if is this complicated and may fail. Why not combine two or three different life-search methods at one? So it might be possible to search directly for signs of a genetic code for example.

David, you were right to ask Mr. Wallace in a direct manner for this obvious gap in instrumentation. In my view it makes no sense to repeat Curiosity principal geophysical experiments set-up by Rover 2020 with only minor changes. Intelligent life-searching experiments shall be included! I miss some very innovative and ingenious ideas for such experiments at NASA/JPL.

DDAY - December 9, 2014

“In my view it makes no sense to repeat Curiosity principal geophysical experiments set”

The Mars 2020 rover does NOT repeat the Curiosity experiments. It’s a different experiment package. The primary package is a sample caching payload that will collect samples for eventual return to Earth. Mr. Wallace explained that.

“I think also it is a flaw not to install experiments, which search directly for life”

Such equipment is currently too big to fit on a spacecraft. It is also not sensitive enough.

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