Wednesday, November 07, 2012
An Interview with Ben Miller
If you follow the Aquarium on Facebook, you already know staffers geeked out a little bit last month when the space shuttle Endeavor flew over Long Beach on its way to LAX. Endeavor is now on public display at the California Science Center, its permanent home.
We always get excited when we can witness something like that in our own neighborhood—and we get particularly excited when it’s science-related. The very science-y Jet Propulsion Laboratory located in Pasadena, played a key role in several of Endeavor’s twenty-five space missions, including building “the camera that saved the Hubble telescope.”
So I was thrilled to find out that the science-love goes both ways! Aquarium member Ben Miller is the mission control team chief at JPL for the Mars Exploration Rover, also known as Opportunity, which landed on Mars in January 2004. Miller also served on the Curiosity mission control team for the launch last November. He lives on Mars time, teaches math at Cal Poly Pomona part time, and has been an Aquarium member for three years. He says the Aquarium is an important place for people to visit because it helps raise environmental awareness.
Miller has been on staff at JPL for nearly three decades. He got his start testing the software for the Galileo spacecraft, which launched in 1989 and orbited Jupiter. In his current role, he communicates directly with Opportunity:
“In 2003 I became the mission controller, which heads the team that actually sends the files to the spacecraft. We don’t make up what’s in the file—the people who design the driving and instruments and all that type of stuff is a different team. There’s a whole bunch of people who work on the rover. On each set of instruments, they have a little team of people. Those people every day communicate with some scientists around the country, and they figure out where they want the rover to go and then they give their inputs to somebody who puts all these commands together to make sequences. Then they give me a sheet called a radiation sheet. And the radiation sheet has times and the names of the files and officially signed-off information. I check all that, and then I communicate with the Deep Space Network, which is made up of antennas that are around the world. There are three complexes: there’s one in Madrid, one in Goldstone, California, and there’s another in Australia. All of the deep space missions are in view of one of those complexes all the time. They’re about 120 degrees apart on Earth. I talk to the antenna complex and I read some information about the times and different parameters, and then I send those files to the spacecraft.”
He was also on standby for the Curiosity landing in August. If anyone got sick, he would be ready to fill in. As it turns out, everyone on the Curiosity team stayed healthy.
Opportunity completed its original three-month mission on Mars eight years ago. It reached the Endeavour crater last summer and continues to send images back to NASA scientists on Earth, take measurements, and drive around. You can keep up with Opportunity here.
Miller has always been an animal lover and is now something of a cat whisperer. He started taking care of a feral cat near JPL when another staff member asked him to take over while she went on vacation. Pretty soon, Mittens, as he named her, would follow him around, Miller says, and he eventually adopted her as a pet. Today, he pays out of his own pocket to capture feral cats in his neighborhood and take them to the vet for shots and neutering. And he will only turn them over to no-kill shelters, although some have joined his home menagerie.
At the Aquarium Miller recommends using the visitors guide to find your favorite animals and seeing them first. His first stop is always Shark Lagoon and the Ray Touchpool. After that, he likes to check the daily schedule to make sure he catches the show times. His favorite animals include the Aquarium’s seals and sea lions, giant Pacific octopus, sea otters, and diving birds.
“Animals have a right to have their habitats and environments protected and preserved as well,” he says. “The Aquarium gives you a way to see the animals up close and interact with them. It gives you a sense of belonging to nature and perhaps a feeling of community that will aid in preserving the habitats of animals, for them as well as us, on this planet we share.”
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