It’s the kind of record that’s hard to achieve in the unforgiving business of exploring space.
San Diego’s Malin Space Science Systems has flown its cameras on nine NASA missions. Some of the spacecraft failed. But the imagers never did. The space agency wound up with pictures that transformed how scientists think about the moon, Mars, Jupiter and asteroids.
“It’s a gratifying statistic to quote, given that the cameras have (cumulatively) logged more than 100 years operation,” said Michael Ravine, advanced projects manager at MSSS, a private company whose workforce has doubled to 70 in recent years.
“It doesn’t represent perfection. It’s just us trying very hard to avoid failure and having a certain amount of good luck. We hope our luck continues. But again, who knows?”
There’s reason for hope and anxiety as MSSS prepares for the July 30 launch of NASA’s $3 billion Mars Perseverance rover, which is laden with 23 cameras. Five are from MSSS, including the rover’s main set of “eyes.”
Half of the nearly 60 missions that have been launched to Mars since 1960 ended in full or partial failure, at a cost of billions of dollars. Some spacecraft, including two carrying MSSS cameras, simply disappeared.
Recent missions have gone well, especially the rover Curiosity, which has made discoveries that point to the possibilities of past, and maybe even current, forms of life on the Red Planet. The space community is hoping Perseverance will help clarify matters, aided by a $28 million suite of cameras from MSSS, a company that’s thriving as it turns 30.
Curiosity is still operating. But Perseverance is a bigger, heavier, more sophisticated rover with sensors that can probe the geology and chemistry of Mars in ways that should more effectively reveal the planet’s nature and history. The SUV-sized rover also will collect rock cores that will be transported back to Earth on a later mission.
Without those cores, scientists won’t be able to definitively say whether life once existed on Mars.
Perseverance also will test technologies that could help lead to human exploration of the moon and Mars. Such missions would need the very thing MSSS designs and builds — cameras.
All of the rover’s imagers are important — none more so than Mastcam-Z, which is fitted with two MSSS cameras.
The system “works in stereo like a pair of human eyes, but can see in wavelengths invisible to us, and thus reveal the planet’s secrets,” said Francis French, a San Diego space historian and analyst. “It’s not just the next best thing to humans visiting in person — in many ways, it is better.”
Ravine is loathe to be that sunny. Three of the first four space missions he worked on ended in failure. But he slowly conceded during an interview, “MastCam-Z will be the workhorse, moving around Mars’ Jezero Crater on the rover, letting us decide where we should stop and what we should look at. We’ll ask questions like, ‘What’s most interesting?’ ”
MSSS is in the driver’s seat. It will collaborate with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on operating Perseverance, just as it has been doing with Curiosity, which has been exploring the planet’s surface for eight years. The company’s technicians and scientists in Sorrento Valley will be in daily contact with their counterparts at JPL in Pasadena on such things as imaging and the performance of the rover.
Analysts say success with the new rover could lead to more reliable funding for future NASA spacecraft that will carry MSSS cameras, including the Lucy and Psyche missions to asteroids, and Dragonfly’s trip to Saturn’s moon Titan. The latter project will cost at least $1 billion.
Perseverance also could bring attention to MSSS’ budding effort to broadly expand beyond NASA and obtain contracts from aerospace companies that service satellites. MSSS already has made progress. In February, a Northrop Grumman spacecraft carrying MSSS imagers rescued a failing satellite in Earth orbit, something that had never been done.
Much of the company’s success is attributed to its namesake, Michael C. Malin, who founded MSSS in 1990 and remains its president.
Malin is a revered figure in unmanned space exploration, partly because of his early work as a geologist and planetary scientist at JPL, where he helped with the Viking 1 and Voyager missions. He then spent 11 years on the faculty of Arizona State University, which is so steeped in space exploration the school refers to the solar system as one of its campuses.
In 1987, Malin was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant, which helped lead him to found his company three years later. He was certain that placing high-resolution cameras on unmanned spacecraft would result in important discoveries, a belief that wasn’t always shared by NASA.
Malin, who is now 70, told a writer that NASA scoffed at his focus on cameras in the mid-1980s, telling him, “Viking had already taken all the pictures we ever needed of Mars.”
That viewpoint was soon dropped. The space agency has invested at least $240 million on MSSS cameras since the early 1990s and literally has a lot to show for it. Some of the MSSS pictures helped confirm that lakes and rivers existed on Mars billions of years ago. It’s expected that Perseverance will reveal more on that count.
Such advances have earned MSSS a lot of admirers. They include Jim Bell, an Arizona State University planetary scientist who is a principal investigator on Perseverance.
“Mike’s came up with ways to cut costs and retain and even increase the quality of images,” said Bell, who has worked with Malin for decades. “He’s really been ahead of his time.”
Bell also is impressed by the durability of the cameras, noting that, “You can’t just take your cellphone and slap it on the mast of a rover. First of all, it would be shaken to bits by the launch. And then you’re in the vacuum of space, where there are huge temperature swings as you move from sunlight to shadow, making materials expand and contract. Then if you go to a place like Mars you have the crazy vibrations and shocks of landing.
“Then you get on the surface where there is dust and wind and more huge temperature changes. That’s why it takes so long to build and test these instruments. They’ve got to be able to withstand this.”
The MSSS cameras have not only performed well, they have yielded unexpected dividends, especially the Mars Descent Imager, which is known as MARDI. It’s attached to the bottom of Curiosity and was chiefly meant to produce a video of the rover landing on Mars, which it did.
But scientists found that they also could use MARDI to take pictures of the ground beneath the rover.
“We can count the size of pebbles or the kind of fractures in rocks, which shows if the rock changed significantly as the rover drove from one place to another,” said Ashwin Vasavada, the project scientist on Curiosity.
“All of these things require a lot of images to make comparisons.”
JPL also is pleased with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a camera fixed to Curiosity’s robotic arm.
“We didn’t necessarily design it so that we would be able to take pictures of the rover itself,” Vasavada said. “But we have used it to take selfies (of Curiosity), which is nice for the public. We also can inspect how the rover is aging. We look for damage to its wheels.”
That helps JPL determine the limitations of operating Curiosity, which has travelled about 14 miles across the Martian surface, slightly more than the distance between Oceanside and Encinitas.
Perseverance has the potential to outperform Curiosity — provided it has a smooth launch.
The spacecraft is tentatively scheduled to be carried into space on Thursday by an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida. There have already been several delays, and NASA can’t afford many more. Perseverance can’t take off later than August 15. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to get on the right path to Mars.
Ravine will watch the launch from his home in University City. In what could be a bad omen, Cape Canaveral is closed to most spectators due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s another cross-your-fingers moment for Ravine. “I’ve witnessed success and I’ve witnessed failure,” he says. “I much prefer success.”