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Small Company, Big Mission: The Phoenix Mars Lander & TECP Sensor

On May 25, 2008 NASA’s Phoenix Lander successfully landed on the surface of Mars and used a robotic scoop arm to deliver regolith samples to the suite of instruments on the deck of the Lander–with one exception. The Thermal and Electrical Conductivity Probe (TECP), designed by a team of Decagon research scientists, was mounted on the knuckle of the robotic arm and made direct contact with the regolith. It measured thermal conductivity, thermal diffusivity, electrical conductivity, and dielectric permittivity of the regolith, as well as vapor pressure of the air.

But, that’s starting at the end of the story.  The fact is that TECP almost didn’t get started.  After seeing a thermal properties needle at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, Mike Hecht (project leader on the Mars Environmental Compatibility Assessment (MECA) instrument suite) encouraged his colleague Martin Buehler to call Decagon to see if we’d be willing to participate in the Phoenix Lander project. When Martin called one Friday afternoon, announcing that he was from JPL and wondering if we would be willing to fly our sensor on the Phoenix Lander, I was instantly intimidated. I knew JPL was associated with NASA, and I couldn’t imagine why they would be calling Decagon.  I always thought there was a fundamental relationship between NASA and Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and other major companies that did NASA work.  I told him that Decagon (much smaller in those days) didn’t have the capacity to develop instrumentation for space flight. He suggested they come up for a visit and at least consult with us on what they would need to do to obtain this measurement.  The following Monday, we were talking Martian science and inexorably hooked on the idea of joining the team.

Phoenix Lander

I knew JPL was associated with NASA, and I couldn’t imagine why they would be calling Decagon.

Deciding to put one of our sensors on Mars did nothing to lessen the intimidation factor. But, working with Mike and his team at JPL/NASA taught us that doing amazing science can be an inspiring and collaborative effort. I’d always imagined NASA as a group of uber-scientists and engineers sitting in glass offices dreaming up and executing great projects that would be impossible for mere mortals.  The reality is that sending something to Mars and having it do real science requires the combined effort of thousands of smart, dedicated people who are not that much different from the rest of us.

This idea was really brought home when we finally visited JPL. Although the things they were doing were amazing and on a much grander scale, they weren’t that much different from the things we do at Decagon.  They had testing facilities, development facilities, production facilities, and support personnel all working together on projects, just like us.  However, the projects were pretty amazing. We watched the robot arm being tested in a lab for the ability to dig martian soil analogs. We observed an ice probe working in a 55 gallon drum trying to prove it could melt its way down through the thick martian polar ice caps. We were mesmerized by prototypes of Mars rovers being programmed and executing maneuvers on Martian surface analogs.

It was fun to discover who the Jet Propulsion Lab is and how enjoyable it is to collaborate with people that are thinking about new applications of technology.  This collaboration also benefitted Decagon’s thermal properties instrument because the mathematical models we developed for Mars made this sensor much more accurate and effective. The Mars project expanded both the depth of our understanding and the breadth of our perspective.  Even so, it was fun to find out that scientists who work at JPL have to put their pants on one leg at a time, just like all of us.

See a virtual seminar where Dr. Mike Hecht talks Mars, poetry, and Decagon’s involvement in the Mars Phoenix Lander Mission.

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