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Watch “Curiosity” being built – LIVE!

On one very special, amazing, nerve-wracking, tail-biting day between Nov 25th and December 18th next year, a rocket will blast off from the Kennedy Space Centre, carrying with it one of NASA’s most precious ever cargoes – “Curiosity”, the Mars Science Laboratory, aka “The Next Mars Rover”.  If all goes well, Curiosity will drop onto the surface of Mars in August of 2012, and begin what we hope will be years of incredible martian exploration.

That’s all a long, loooong way off yet, of course, but already excitement about Curiosity is growing, both at JPL and out in the space enthusiast world. As the two Mars Exploration Rovers, “Spirit” (still stuck in her dustbowl crater) and “Opportunity” (still trekking on towards the huge crater, Endeavour) continue to thrill and enthrall, Curiosity is still in the process of being built in the sterile, cavernous ‘clean room’ at JPL in California.

Over the past couple of years, JPL have been trying to raise the profile of the mission in advance of the rover’s launch. Many thousands of people have accepted NASA’s invitation to “send their names to Mars” by entering them at a special website. All those names will travel to Mars on a special disc fitted to the rover. There have also been lots of media and press releases marking each significant mission milestone – components being tested and fitted, wheels and camera mast attached, the rover’s first drive, etc. JPL has even arranged several live web broadcasts, allowing space enthusiasts around the world to watch important events in the clean room. They were one-night only events, but very well supported, proving there’s a LOT of interest in Curiosity out there.

But now JPL’s efforts to raise the profile of Curiosity have really stepped up a gear, with the unveiling of a fascinating new live video stream from the clean room, which allows people to watch the rover being built.

This is, as far as I know, something that’s never been done before. Thanks to this innovative new video streaming site, we can all watch Curiosity taking shape, live, as if we were standing there in the clean room’s hushed viewing gallery!

This is a big deal, it really is, not just because it grants the man, woman and child in the street unprecedented access to the very heart of JPL, where a multi-million dollar machine is being built, but because there’s also a “chat room” feature on the site, allowing viewers to chat to each other about what they see happening in the clean room. It’s moderated bypeople from JPL itself, and is visited by a lot of very knowledgeable people, as the comments and discussions I saw last night show. That’s great because it means people can go onto the site, and ask questions about the rover and its mission, and have them answered, in real time, by people who actually know.

( The downside of having a chat feature, of course, is that ALL chat rooms attract internet trolls and prats and ****heads like honey attracts bees. Hard to understand, I know, but some people go into chat rooms like this one simply and only to behave stupidly and offensively, and cause trouble and ruin it for everyone else. Last night a couple of pathetic individuals – Neo-wannabes, with IQs in single figures, no doubt tapping away on their keyboards in their suspiciously-musty smelling bedrooms – were in the chat room using bad language and trying to spoil things, but they didn’t succeed, and I’m sure that there’ll soon be a whole posse of Moderators, scattered around the world to provide 24 monitoring of the site, to prevent such sad individuals from spoiling things! 🙂 )

But back to the site – where is it, and what can you see there?

First of all, where is it? Ok, here’s the link to the “Curiosity Cam” site:

http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl

Click on that link and you’ll see this appear on your screen:

On the left is the “Curiosity Cam”‘s feed, showing the under-construction rover on the right, surrounded by various bits of kit, instruments and work stations, etc. Depending on the time of day you visit you’ll either see Curiosity surrounded by white bunny-suited engineers and techs, all feverishly working away (well, some will be feverishly working away, others will be standing around looking very… um… curious…! I’m sure they’re actually very busy, ‘supervising’ and ‘monitoring’ etc! 🙂 ) on and around the rover. There’s no audio with the feed – the camera has no microphone – but that doesn’t matter, because just the pictures are pretty incredible – a chance to watch space engineers building a machine that will travel to, and explore, another world… and all there on your very own computer, with just a click of the mouse, for free. 🙂

Over on the right you’ll see a chat room window. I think you’ll probably need to register with UStream to join in the chat, not sure about that TBH. That’s where you can ask questions about the rover and what the camera feed is showing, and generally chat about the MSL mission with other people. (And again, if you drop by at a time when some idiots are in there trying to be clever and cause trouble, don’t worry about it; they’re a tiny minority and there are many, many more people there with a genuine interest in the mission and the work going on on-camera. Don’t let some spotty-faced would-be hacker with too much time on his hairy hands spoil it for you! 🙂 )

Beneath the video window you’ll find a very informative bar of MSL information, with details of the mission’s timeline, and links to many useful websites. Well worth a look.

But of course, the main attraction is the video window, and in that you’ll be able to see the MSL team working on the rover, putting bits on it, taking bits off, crawling around beneath it, etc. That might sound a bit dull to some people but think about it… you can actually watch the next rover that will land on, and explore, Mars, taking shape, live, as it happens. That has to be special, right? And just think: when Curiosity lands on Mars in late 2010, and starts sending back pictures, thanks to this innovative project tens of thousands of people all across the world will be able to say “I watched that being built!”

So, drop on by the site when you get a chance and take a look at “The next Mars rover” being built. And if you like what you see, then why not drop them a line and tell them? You can email NASA via the website. And I think we should say “Thank you”, because through “Curiosity Cam” we all have a chance to watch history being made.

Finally, and this echoes a comment made on Emily Lakdawalla’s superb Planetary Society blog, very special thanks should go to JPL’s Veronica McGregor, who has put an enormous amount of work into this project. Thanks to her following the Curiosity mission as it takes shape, as the rover is built, piece by piece, will become an everyday part of countless people’s lives, which will make it that much more personal to them. People will now build up a real personal connection with the rover, because they’ll have seen it coming together, and when it lands on Mars it will carry a tiny piece of them with it. So, thanks Veronica! 🙂

NOTE: the rover techs don’t usually work weekends, so if you tune-in at the moment you won’t see much going on, just a feed of the rover sitting there. Hopefully. Really don’t want to see something like this…

🙂

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