Right now, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab is at the center of one of the most ambitious missions to Mars ever undertaken by humanity. Tonight, they'll be landing a sophisticated robotic rover on Mars, the Mars Science Lab (MSL) Curiosity, and waiting breathlessly as the rover makes its final descent to the surface. Very few people are allowed at JPL today, but luckily you're one of them. Last month, I took an extensive tour of JPL along with thousands of other people who came out to the JPL Open House, a free annual event where the facility opens its doors to the public.
I got photographs of all the places where Curiosity was born, trained, and is today being controlled during these final hours as it approaches its destination. Take the tour and see where Curiosity came from!
Click any image to embiggen.
JPL may be one of the most futuristic institutes on the planet, but it's located in a wild canyon in Pasadena, California, surrounded by nature.
Welcome to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, where there's an enormous warehouse clean room where every spacecraft in JPL's history has been assembled, including MSL.
The room is currently empty because its latest creation, MSL, is on a very important mission right now.
Every single NASA/JPL mission logo is on the wall — here are a few of the earliest.
Another view of the clean room.
Equipment for building the rover.
Outside, an enormous container of liquid nitrogen looms over visitors.
Welcome to Mission Control, where today the whole MSL team is gathered to work on MSL's landing tonight.
It's a pretty cushy room, full of work stations arranged in a U-shape, with giant screens mounted on the walls so people can watch mission updates second-by-second.
Dimly-lit except for the display screens, the room is also highlighted in matte black furniture, making the whole thing look pretty science fictional.
This is where it's all happening right now.
Here's the In Situ Instrument Lab, where the MSL drove over Mars-like terrain so that scientists could test to see how it would handle rocks, sand, and other obstacles once it arrived on the Red Planet.
Inside, you can see the staging area, full of sand and rocks.
It looks sort of like a Hollywood sound stage.
But these simulated obstacles are going to be very real challenges for Curiosity when it starts roving on the Martian surface.
A model of part of the MSL's electronics module.
A huge poster hanging outside one of JPL's buildings expresses the lab's belief that humans might not be the only life in the universe.
Now let's visit one of the machine shops at JPL, where all the parts for the spacecraft are made with insane levels of precision.
A high-precision cutter that uses ultrathin electrified wires to cut.
The best vending machine in the entire universe — stocked with tools.
A few items on offer in the vending machine.
This device is used to map points on physical objects to points in the computer designs used to create them. Basically, it's a way of checking to be sure the components of the rover match the design specifications.
Specs on that machine.
Here's another device for checking physical parts against software designs. Here you can see the machine is measuring a wheel, and in the background you can see the computer design of the wheel.
Tomorrow's rover? A robotic wall crawler, its specialized treads modeled on sticky chameleon feet, might be incorporated into future planetary rover.
Another future direction for planetary rovers — here the boxy shape is actually separated from the two wheels you see behind. The wheels can roll down a huge crater on a line, while sending data back to the other part of the rover. This future rover might be very useful for studying the craters and canyons of Mars.
From Earth to Mars, the MSL has had quite a crossing.