Emily LakdawallaMay 20, 2008

Gearing up for the Phoenix landing

Although news from other planets and other missions is rolling in just as it always does, I think I should prepare all of you readers out there for the fact that this weblog is going to become all Phoenix, all the time, for at least the next week, probably two. As I gear up to cover the landing on Sunday, the work is quickly eating up the 20 hours a week I am technically supposed to be working, and then some. But witnessing a Mars landing is a rare event -- the last one was more than four years ago -- and I'm privileged to have the opportunity to see things happen from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), from which Phoenix has been commanded through its nine-month cruise.

I was spoiled by the Mars Exploration Rover landings. The Planetary Society was an official participant in the mission with our Red Rover Goes to Mars education project; in a bizarre twist of history and bureaucracy, my boss, Lou Friedman, was technically a "Principal Investigator" on that project, the only other one on the mission besides Steve Squyres. The major benefit of that oddly inflated status was that I got to be with the team in the science operations areas when both Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars, and that's an experience I'll never forget -- and may never get to repeat.

This landing will be different; along with every other member of the media, I'll be in a special area set aside for the press, from which we'll have access to a lot of information and great Internet access, but which is, to my very great sadness, far away from the scientists and engineers. I'll actually be watching the landing primarily from the NASA TV feed, the same way as many of you out there on the Internet will be watching it. I'll be with an interesting mix of reporters -- some of them will be old hands, far, far more knowledgeable and experienced than I, and some of them will be generalists who will be befuddled about what all of the acronyms and engineer-speak means. I covered the Deep Impact crash into Tempel 1 from the JPL press room, and I remember some of the people there were figuring out what the NASA TV feed meant by reading my blog -- which was composed, in part, from what I overheard from the more experienced reporters' chatter.

The landing is on Sunday. But the action actually starts tomorrow (Wednesday). I'll be going to JPL tomorrow morning to pick up the badge that will permit me access into the press area, and I'll scope out the Internet connection, and the work area where I'll be able to set up shop for blogging, and an alternate area where I can take my computer and do Webcasting without irritating other reporters who are trying to concentrate. There's a full schedule of press briefings planned for the coming week: one on Thursday at 11:30, one on Saturday at noon, one on Sunday at noon before the landing, one on Sunday at 9:00 p.m., after the landing (or whatever), and then briefings at noon all week next week. It's going to be a bit of a strain to try to cover it all, but fortunately I've got family in the area to dump the baby on during the holiday weekend. Monday is "Memorial Day" here in the U.S., a day set aside to honor military veterans, which also happily corresponds with the coming of real spring weather in the North and real summer weather in the South, so it's a traditional time for family picnics and, because of the three-day weekend, a profusion of weddings. I'll miss my family picnic, but at least the baby will (hopefully) have fun without me.

So here's my nominal plan: I'll be at JPL tomorrow morning. I'll go again on Thursday for the press briefing, and will probably test out the Internet by doing a Ustream chat afterward, at approximately 13:00 my time. (This is a lousy time for American viewers with jobs, I know, but be consoled by the fact that you get to watch the landing at a reasonable hour on Sunday, while Europeans have to stay up until the wee hours.) On Friday I go back to JPL for a tour and photo ops from mission control. On Saturday there's another press briefing, but I need to spend some time at home and not working this weekend, so I'll watch it on NASA TV. On Sunday, I'll probably show up at JPL right on time for the noon press briefing and start blogging away right afterward, until the bitter end. I think I will probably do a Ustream chat some time before the landing craziness begins -- I'll tentatively schedule it for 13:30 my time, subject to change. I'd like to do another Ustream chat after the landing, if all goes well, but whenever I chat I can't pay attention to what's going on, so I'll have to decide at the last minute on that one. And I'll cover the Monday and Tuesday press briefings on-site as well, but might start staying home after that.

And somewhere in there, next week, I need to prepare for three separate presentations or panels at the upcoming meeting of the American Astronomical Society and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, which I'll be doing remotely, via webcam; so don't expect me to have much to talk about besides Phoenix for, I guess, almost two weeks! I hope you like Mars landings!

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