JPL your, JPL Lecture Series

Date: 7/8/05, 7/21/05

Reporter: Nikhil Singh



The NASA SHARP students went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for a tour around the facility.  The tour guides were Curtis, Mark, Pete, and Cindy.  Curtis started off the tour by talking about JPL/NASA.  He told us that 90% of the launches were done in Cape Canaveral, while 10% was done in the Kennedy Space Center.  They decided to use Jet Propulsion instead of Rocket Propulsion because at the time, rockets sounded too futuristic.

            The tour guide, Curtis, told us how JPL was started by a group of Caltech students that were kicked off campus because their experiments were too dangerous.  On October 31, 1936, they had the first successful rocket launch start of the JPL.  They were mentored by Von Karman, who was director of aeronautics at Caltech.  Von Karman told the Army about the JPL kids which resulted in the Army giving JPL funding. 

            After Russia put Sputnik in space, JPL/Army launched Explorer 1, the first American spacecraft in space.  The Explorer 1 was the first spacecraft with science equipment on it.  NASA was made 6 months after the launch, however a lot of the employees were from JPL.  JPL is part of NASA, but is still being run by Caltech people.

            We were then showed a movie called “Spirit of Exploration.”  The movie talked about GALEX, which is to measure star formation in galaxies, and Spitzer Space Telescopes, which uses infrared light to show black holes and young stars.  It then moved on to how the Mars Rover stopped sending telemetry.  It was possible that they could have gone from two rovers to zero.  Luckily, they didn’t lose them.  The rover found evidence of past standing water in Eagle Crater. 

JPL has 2 ˝ dozen crafts exploring our solar system and beyond.  They showed us the models of the two Voyagers.  Voyager 1 is the furthest out manmade object.  It is the fastest, averaging 40,000 mph.  The Voyager doesn’t use solar panels because it is too far from the sun.  Instead, it uses Radio Isotope Thermal Generator (RTG).

After they showed us around we met a real astronaut!  His name is Leland Melvin and was an astronaut with JPL/NASA since 1988.  He was born in Lynchburg, Virginia.  We were told a story about his homecoming football game.  The moral of the story was “never give up”.  Eventually, he got a scholarship into University of Virginia to play football.  During his four years he was able to study chemistry while he played football.  After he was drafted in the 11th round to the Lions, a National Football League team, he pulled his hamstring, and was moved around a few teams before he finally went back to graduate school full time.  He now has a Chemistry degree and a Material Science degree.  He was with NASA for nine years before joining the astronaut core.  He also showed us pictures and mini-bios of the current astronauts he knows. 


Steven Brown, a NASA SHARP apprentice from North Carolina, with an astronaut, Leland Melvin.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory holds different lecture series each month at two locations: JPL and Pasadena City College.  On July 21, 2005 they spoke at JPL about the significance of the probe NASA had crashed into a comet.

The structure of comets can answer the most elusive questions about our solar system’s past.  Comets are the frozen time capsules that hold the clued to the origins of our solar system.  These “dirty ice balls,” left over from the formation of our solar system, have remained relatively unchanged for the last 4.6 billion years.  History has recorded sightings of these graceful “stars” with awe and curiosity as they appear unannounced in the sky.  With a dozen “new” comets discovered each year, scientists continue to look up toward the sky for a better understanding of these time capsules.

In the ancient days, comets were thought to be warnings.  A comet appeared after Julius Caesar died.  However, little did they know it just happened to be timed that way.  We now find out that that specific comet happened to be Halley’s comet.

Isaac Newton’s apprentice Edmund Halley, proved they were warnings.  He showed that the comets from 1531, 1607, and 1682 had similar characteristics.  We now call it Halley’s Comet in honor of his discovery.

There is a theory that 4 ˝ billion years ago, the Earth was too hot to support life.  It is believed that comets collided with the Earth and delivered water and carbon based materials.  Then 65 million years ago, dinosaurs died from another impact by a comet.  The dust from the impact went up in the air and blocked the sun. 

They planned to have a spacecraft mission to determine the nucleus of a comet.  It has been imagined to be an icy dirt ball while the crust of the comet protects the inside.  The mission NASA planned, Deep Impact, was lead by Dr. Michael A’Hearn.  The objective was to study the composition and structure of the comet and take high resolution pictures.  They used copper with their probe because it won’t mix with the other materials.  The comet moved ten times faster than a speeding bullet, so they had to be precise in their calculations.


After the lecture, we had a question and answer session, where the audience could ask the speaker any questions they wished to be answered. (Question and Answers are not word for word)

Question:  What exactly was the shutter speed of the camera taking the pictures of the comet?

Answer:  0.1 sec

Question:  Could the comet have an atmosphere?

Answer:  Yes it could, but it wouldn’t have at atmosphere like the Earth’s.

Question:  Could the comet have amino acids and have awakened once it landed on Earth?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  What’s the difference between comets and asteroids?

Answer:  The leftover rock from the inner planets, which is now in between Mars and Jupiter, are asteroids.  Leftover material from the outer planets are comets.




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