On Wednesday, 12 August, during week 9 of the normal SURF period, Varoujan led the Astronomy summer student coffee group on a tour of JPL. Why so late? Well, at least one of the viewing galleries we were going to visit was closed prior to that, so late is better than never! And at least for me, my time out at JPL only led me to visit a couple of buildings, and none of the ones with the cool viewing galleries. So I was excited to see new things.
We started out by walking down to the Mars Yard viewing gallery, where work with the Mars rovers is going on. In one half of the area, parts of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) engineering model (especially its legs!) are staying while they are worked on. The other half is where there’s a setup rigged up to try to ‘Free Spirit’, one of the Mars Exploration Rovers. It got stuck in some soft soil about three and a half months ago. Because they can’t exactly send someone to dig it out or fix the rover if they break it while telling it to get itself out, it is worthwhile to spend time studying how Spirit is stuck, and test out methods of getting it out using a rover model and a mock up of the soil situation.
Then we headed over to the high bay in the spacecraft assembly facility, where the spacecraft that the MSL rover will go into is located. In the viewing gallery area there was information about the MSL spacecraft and rover. The plan for landing the rover on Mars is interesting, if not a bit convoluted. Take a look here (the JPL MSL timeline page). Also, the rover has a laser to vaporize rocks on its head. I know, there are very good scientific reasons for doing this, but that’s just too cool.
It was really cool to see all the panels on the walls that show what missions have been assembled in this building. Apparently it was quite a trick to get Cassini out of the door on the left side of the building. It’s a really big door, but Varoujan was telling us how it was a very tight fit nonetheless.
Then we wandered into the lower floors of the building I work in. We briefly stopped outside a clean room that had this sign on the outside.
Apparently any lab that has this on the outside contains something that will fly on a spacecraft sometime in the future. I then realized that a different lab that I walked by daily was working on flight hardware… goes to show that there’s a lot about JPL that I don’t know.
Then we headed up to the Multimission Image Processing Laboratory. It’s funny how I (and probably a lot of people my age) take for granted the nuances and difficulties of data transfer and image processing… and we don’t stop to think how people had to work out all the minute details sometime in the past!
Of course, our main stop in the Image Processing Laboratory was the media viewing room. We saw animations of a number of missions, and videos compiled of images taken on real missions. We even got to wear cool 3D glasses for some of them! It was really impressive. We got to see what the sun looks like over time, with sun spot variation and solar flares. We also saw animations as well as actual footage of Mars and the Martian terrain (martain? I know it doesn’t work, but the word ‘terrain’ seems… out of place).
We finished up by visiting the displays by the Von Karman lecture hall.
Like many students at Caltech, I suffer from a slight boba addiction, where side effects may include over caffeination, minor sugar highs, and of course, a large toll on one’s wallet. This addiction is not helped by the fact that there are at least three boba shops within walking distance of campus. So, after an entire term’s worth of boba runs, I came back from winter break with a new year’s epiphany: it was time to get a job. Rather than try to curb my addiction, I decided to find a way to subsidize it.
Research at Caltech looks different for every student, and can often vary term by term. As a chemistry major, my course requirements are on the lighter side for a Caltech major, and many chemistry majors take advantage of the lighter course load to join research groups. This can be whenever the student wants, but many people join labs during their freshman or sophomore years. Some may work in one lab only, and some may switch between labs during the course of their undergraduate studies, depending on if their interests change.
SURF, short for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, is a quintessential experience for any Caltech student. It is a widely accessible research fellowship for Caltech students that funds your proposed research for one summer term. While many of my classmates did their first SURF the summer after their freshman year, I sent in my first application to the program as a sophomore. As a CS major, I was trying to chase meaningful work that intersected computation with the field of neuroscience. I ended up doing a SURF at the Stanford School of Medicine that first year, studying hand gestures in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Since then, I’ve been working in the research space of applying computational analyses to ASD.
This summer, from the confines of my Brooklyn apartment, you could find me typing away on a tiny 13-inch laptop screen. At times I was looking for answers on countless Stack Exchange pages, editing a Jupyter notebook, or making blood flow measurements on a software called Arterys. This was my 2021 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURF) experience.