[personal profile] emelbe and I set our alarms for 02:30 and 02:35 respectively, just to be sure we got up in time to walk over to Caltech for the end of mission. We dressed and poured coffee into ourselves, made sure we had our badges, and got out the door in plenty of time to arrive before 04:00, the official start of the event and NASA TV coverage.

Walking up to Beckman Auditorium (aka the wedding cake) from the south.

As it happened. )
Thursday was meant to be a quiet day, since we all knew we had to be up and at Caltech by 4 AM for the thing we’d all been preparing for: the actual end of mission.

In reality, there were some impromptu science meetings at Caltech, one of which I attended in the morning. I slipped out just before noon, because I had someone to meet.

I headed down from Beckman to South Mudd to see my former JPL postdoctoral supervisor, from back in those heady days when I was still a lab scientist, for lunch. I hadn’t seen him since 2006. I eventually remembered where his Caltech office was. I could’ve found the JPL one much more easily, but it would have required me to check in and get a badge, which seemed a lot of faff for lunch. Besides, there are nicer places to eat in Pasadena. Once in the correct corridor, I spotted his technician hovering outside the door, plus another UK person from the physical chemistry community whom I’d never met but knows the bloke pretty well. There were lots of smiles and hugs, and we decided to head down to a restaurant over on Lake Street.

We had a very pleasant hour of conversation, reminiscing and catching up. I had a shock on hearing that their children, whom I remembered as children or young teenagers, were now grown up and had careers of their own. Of course I knew that would have happened in the intervening decade-plus, but it’s not until you actually speak together about these things that they’re driven home to you. They were equally shocked on learning that Humuhumu has started school - and has a younger sibling! The bloke and I had been remiss in our communication, clearly. We talked of science, of course, and of politics and its effects on research direction, and of our worries about the future due to Brexit and the current US administration.

I am still kicking myself for forgetting to take a photo. You must instead picture me with a group of men: one starting to disappear into the frailty of old age, peering out earnestly from large-framed glasses, one solid and grey-haired and mostly silent with twinkling blue eyes, and one cheeky-grinned middle-aged bear of a chap with a shock of brown hair and a beard. All sitting together in a booth of a Japanese restaurant, eagerly shoveling the contents of bento boxes into our faces, occasionally bursting into roars of laughter while cheesy ‘90s music played in the background.

We parted with promises not to let another eleven years pass before we met again. I was left with the warm glow you get from (re)connecting with friendly, kind, intelligent people. It was a lovely way to buffer against the excitement and strain of what was to come on Friday morning.

Chilling out in my JPL t-shirt before the end of mission.
On Wednesday morning, [personal profile] emelbe and I saddled up and drove over to the Jet Propulsion Lab for a tour. We put her trusty sat nav on, and I noticed that instead of a car, the little icon was an x-wing. She turned the audio on. “Driven well you have,” said Yoda. “In a quarter of a mile, turn left. It is your destiny.”

It was decided that it was fitting for Yoda to be allowed to direct us to JPL.

JPL tour badge with Curiosity on the front. We got to keep these.

Tour, with side trips down memory lane )
I flew into Los Angeles on the Sunday before the last-while-Cassini-is-still-in-orbit-around-Saturn Project Science Group meeting began. I was feeling dodgy when I got up at 6 AM, but I napped in the taxi and took some ibuprofen, and hoped that the feeling would go away.

It did not.

I made sure my usual mobile pharmacy (ibuprofen, paracetamol, Rennie) was stocked in my rucksack before I boarded the plane, and was glad I'd done so about three hours into the flight when my fever started spiking. I alternated ibuprofen and paracetamol every two hours. The flight attendants kindly granted all of my requests for cold water/cans of ginger ale, which were frequent. It was one of the most miserable long-haul flights I've ever had.

I spent nearly all of Monday in bed apart from a brief foray out to get a hot Thai curry into my belly for lunch. This paid off on Tuesday, and I was able to spend half a day at Caltech to dial into the penultimate operations meeting. (There will be one more after the crash, but obviously we’ll no longer have an instrument status to report.) I was excited about this, because I had been saving up something for a very long time.

In fine fettle was the other option )

to be continued
(I meant to post this yesterday but ran out of oomph. Er, maybe it's still Thursday somewhere?)

I realise this is not the most exciting photo in the world, but my Fun Space History Fact of the Day for Throwback Thursday is that the Cassini spacecraft distributed operations computers OS of choice is...Solaris. Note the countdown clock in the upper right corner of the screen. Only two weeks left.

Side note: I love those weird eye-bendy default backgrounds in Solaris. They remind me that my first experience learning to use *nix properly was on the Sun Sparc 5 workstations in the Von Karman library basement at the University of Southern California.

Yesterday, we celebrated the retirement of one of my lab colleagues (second from right). He spent 52 years working as a technician in our lab. Power supplies he built for dozens of space missions are scattered throughout the solar system. He is a (largely) unsung hero of space history, Hauksbee Award notwithstanding. Trevor Beek, I salute you. I hope you enjoy many years in contemplation of a job well done.
It is now just over three weeks until Cassini plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere and the mission (but not the Project) comes to an end. I grow a little sentimental.

This is the flight spare of Cassini’s fluxgate magnetometer sensor, which will live on. We use it for command simulations on the ground.

This is a 1:25 scale model of the Cassini spacecraft, with the Huygens probe attached to its side. It includes the magnetometer boom, which is hidden in this view. These were distributed to the payload teams. It's been in our group longer than I have (>11 years).

I recently ordered a big perspex display box for the model, so we can have it on show at the upcoming Imperial Fringe festival, post-mission-end. I’ll be giving a talk at the Farewell to Cassini exhibit. Details to follow (on the Londoners filter) when they’re confirmed and the web site for event registration is live.

This is a screenshot of NASA Eyes on the DSN that I took on 4 August. DSS-14 at Goldstone (the antenna in white on the left) is receiving data from Voyager 1 (spacecraft shown on the right). I accompanied this with “We’re still listening” on [instagram.com profile] magnetometrist on Instagram.

NASA has a poll, open until Tuesday 29 August, to choose a 60-character-or-less #MessagetoVoyager, to be sent on 5 September. If you want to vote on a message, go here.
August is, apparently, the season for Certificates of Appreciation in spacecraft engineering!

First up is the one for Solar Orbiter.
This has an image of the spacecraft approaching the Sun in the upper right corner. It reads, “This certificate recognises the significant contribution of [nanila] to the development of the magnetometer instrument on the Solar Orbiter spacecraft. In recognition of this contribution, your name will be carried within the memory of the magnetometer instrument on its voyage to explore the Sun and the inner solar system.” It’s signed by the instrument PI (Principal Investigator) and instrument manager (my fantastic colleague and labmate Helen).

My name’s going to the Sun! (TBH I’m glad it’s just name. It’s a bit...lethal-radiation-y out there.)

Second is the one from Rosetta.
This as, as its backdrop, a stunning close-up image of Comet 67P taken by the OSIRIS instrument. There’s a sketched Rosetta spacecraft in the upper left corner, and a sketched Philae in the lower right. It reads, “European Space Agency presents this certificate to [nanila] in recognition of your outstanding contribution to the ESA Rosetta Mission.” It’s signed by the Director of Science at ESA, the Rosetta Mission Manager and the Rosetta Project Scientist.

Finally, here’s an old one from the Cluster and Double Star anniversaries.
This one has an image of the Sun and the Earth (not to scale), as well as the Earth’s magnetic field in blue. The four Cluster spacecraft are in formation at the bottom right and the two Double Star spacecraft are closer to the Earth. Also not to scale (“These are small and those are far away”).

The certificate reads “Cluster 15th and Double Star 10th anniversary. ESA and NSSC present this certificate to [nanila] in recognition of your outstanding contribution to the Cluster and Double Star missions.” It’s signed by the Chinese National Space Science Center director, the Cluster & Double Star project scientist and the Director of Science & Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency.

The Cluster mission is now in its 17th year since the commissioning phase ended and still going strong. The Double Star spacecraft are no longer operational.

I’ve worked on the Cluster mission since 2006.
[Image of a Cassini spacecraft model inside a black gimbal structure comprised of three concentric rings, mounted on a plexiglass stand and sitting on the corner of a desk.]

Now that I'm back at work, I present another of my Rare Objects from Space History for #tbt. This is a model of the Cassini spacecraft, mounted in the centre of what I can only think to describe as a gimbal. The high gain antenna is pointed toward the bottom of the photo. The model was distributed to instrument teams to aid them with pointing design. It can be rotated around three axes within the gimbal. Each circle of rotation is marked in degrees, so that from a set of numbers indicating its orientation (eg "RA & dec"), an instrument engineer can work out which way the spacecraft is pointing.

I have no idea when it was originally given to our team but it predates me joining the Cassini project (ca 2006).
[Image of a fluxgate magnetometer in its housing with its frayed MLI-coated cable curled round it. The destroyed connectors can be seen. The whole assembly is sitting on top of an antistatic envelope. The sensor housing reads: "CLUSTER-FGM SENSOR 08 FM1", where FM means "flight model".]

I gave an outreach talk at an open day this morning, to about a hundred A-level students, their parents and their teachers. The talk was focused on the Cassini end-of-mission science, but I managed to sneak in this bit of space history when explaining what a magnetometer does.

The fluxgate in the photo above actually went into space for a few brief seconds. It got about 5 km up before it was unceremoniously returned to the Earth. The Ariane 5 rocket that launched the spacecraft whose payload it was part of had exploded, showering the swamps of French Guiana with wreckage.

This sensor sat in that swamp for a good few weeks before a French Foreign Legionnaire fished it out.

I'm afraid that being blown up and mouldering in a tropical pond was, in fact, enough to kill it, but it's still a pretty cool object, and the students seemed to like seeing it very much.
As many of you know, I work on the Cassini mission as an operations engineer and have done for over a decade.

Tomorrow is the spacecraft’s final close flyby (T126) of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Just to put this into perspective for you, this may be the last time in decades that we get anywhere near Titan. There are no missions to Saturn or its most interesting* moons, Titan and Enceladus, currently funded or being built. That means there’s a minimum of ten years before a new mission could be launched. Given that the transit time to Saturn is, at a minimum, seven years and on average more like ten, that’s two decades until we can repeat Cassini’s observations.

Cassini’s impending demise makes me sad, of course, but what bothers me even more is the lack of continuity in our exploration of our solar system.

You can read the details of tomorrow’s Cassini’s observations on the NASA-JPL press release here. It includes an animation of the flyby over the surface, from the perspective of the spacecraft.

* “most interesting” being ever so slightly subjective, of course