NASA tests the perseverance of some space enthusiasts
by Svetoslav Alexandrov
|On Saturday morning space fans were frantically hitting the F5 button only to be disappointed by the fact that the website had not been updated with the promised new photos.|
It all started so well. On Thursday, February 18, everyone was focused on the landing of Perseverance, which was the most important goal. No safe landing meant no images, no scientific data, no helicopter flying in the Martian atmosphere. In my opinion NASA TV did a great job covering the touchdown. As it became clear that the rover is on the surface of the Red Planet intact and in good condition, the focus switched on receiving the first pictures. А page where raw images are to be posted appeared on a NASA website. Shortly afterwards, three photos were published and people naturally assumed that more would follow in the next few hours, just as it was the case with previous Mars surface missions.
But that wasn’t the case this time. Space fans are impatient—that never changes—but most of us chose to be calm and wait for the next press conference scheduled for Friday. It was another great event where several captioned images were released to the public, including the first color photo from the Martian surface taken by Perseverance, a photo of the rover attached to the skycrane tethers, and a photo from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing the parachute descent phase. It was also said that the raw images would appear on the web later that day.
Friday night came and went. On Saturday morning space fans were frantically hitting the F5 button only to be disappointed by the fact that the website had not been updated with the promised new photos. There was nothing else to do but wait and ask on social media what’s going on and where are the pictures.
“On every previous Mars mission since the MERs landed in 2004, these pages have given us all views of the daily operations of NASA's Mars missions”, wrote Emily Lakdawalla, a scientist and writer who has extensive experience processing imagery from planetary missions. In a lengthy Twitter thread Saturday, she explained past missions had provided a feed of raw images even during their first days after landing. This time, though, not even the images released at Friday’s press conference were included in the Perseverance archive. With no evidence of technical issues, she concluded that NASA “has decided to go back on its previous commitment to open data & tradition of sharing raw images, that it wants to limit and control the narrative.”
The situation became even more frustrating when social network accounts linked to NASA and people who work on the project didn’t offer an explanation. Finally on Saturday evening, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, came out with a statement on Twitter. Since the landing, he explained, the mission had prioritized “first-of-its-kind footage from the rover’s entry, descent & landing” as well as “health & safety data for the rover & its subsystems.”
“As @NASAPersevere instruments come online, we are using processes and lessons learned from @MarsCuriosity,” he wrote, noting more images would come out at a brefing at 2 pm EST Monday. “It will be worth the wait!
Thus, Zurbuchen basically confirmed that no new photos are to be expected until Monday. He also provided several other comments. For example, when he was told “I hope that after you've had your big news briefing you'll go back to prompt and open release of the raw images,” he replied “This is indeed what I mean by “using the lessons learned by Curiosity.” When Zurbuchen was asked, “Has the policy regarding the release of raw imagery changed? And if so why?”, he bluntly said “No.”
Late Sunday, though, NASA relented, and published about 150 images taken by the rover’s hazcams. Zurbuchen thanked the mission team “for working so hard and diligently and for being able to deliver things to us ahead of schedule because they know the intense public interest.” Enthusiasts dived into the archive with zeal, quickly producing color images and panoramas. However, NASA didn’t release any images from other instruments.
With the absence of any new information as of publication of this article, people are still wondering why only a relative few raw photos have been published yet. Putting aside absurd conspiracies and allegations that NASA is hiding something important like aliens, there are several potential explanations for what’s going on.
|I don’t believe that the existence of an image processing community should make those working at space agencies feel vulnerable.|
The first reason for the delay that comes to mind is obvious: the pandemic. A lot of people work at home and may have trouble setting up the pipeline on NASA’s website. Another plausible explanation is that it isn’t possible to easily adapt the Curiosity web code for Perseverance, because the new rover carries more than 20 cameras which provide complicated high-resolution data that can’t be easily converted to jpegs. And, of course, the publicity of Perseverance could have become a victim of the unfortunate fact that the rover landed just before the weekend, and nobody is in hurry to publish the photos prior to the start of the new workweek. There’s also the potentially high volume of images from the lander’s descent that NASA prioritized, with some suggesting there could be more than 28,400 individual frames from the descent cameras alone.
Yet there could be another possible explanation. The reason why the images haven’t been released may be that certain scientists, members of the team, or NASA public affairs officers are afraid of being scooped. This was a common argument used in the past to justify hoarding images and refusing to release them to the public. However, it wasn’t a problem when Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, Curiosity, and InSight landed on Mars. Why could this be a problem now?
Zurbuchen’s tweets may provide an insight. Could “using the lessons learned by Curiosity” refer to the case when amateurs created their own descent videos from Curiosity raw images before the team had the chance to process them and show them on press conferences?
|The culture of openness has always been one of the strongest features of NASA. I don’t think I’d have become a passionate space devotee if I was left waiting for days without being able to see the photos from Spirit and Opportunity.|
If that’s really the reason for the delay, then space enthusiasts are right to worry. Assuming this speculation is true, the images from now on could easily be gated behind the press conferences. So far we’re promised that after the big briefing on Monday things would return back to normal with Perseverance raw images appearing on the web as fast as they appear from Curiosity. But if such gating happens once, there is no guarantee that it won’t happen again in the future, even when the landing of Perseverance is no longer a trending topic.
I don’t believe that the existence of an image processing community should make those working at space agencies feel vulnerable. I don’t think it’s a good enough reason to justify sitting on images. Instead of withholding photos while the team is done working on them, why don’t incorporate that image processing culture within the overall mission activity? The Juno mission gave us a great example of how this could be done.
The culture of openness has always been one of the strongest features of NASA. A lot of millennials, myself included, became space enthusiasts because we were inspired by the great way the agency handled the Mars Exploration Rover mission: the publicity, inclusivity, the thrill, and, most importantly, the speedy release of photos from the Red Planet. I don’t think I’d have become a passionate space devotee if I was left waiting for days without being able to see the photos from Spirit and Opportunity. Most probably I would have told myself, “Apparently space is still accessible only to a selected group of people and not to everyone. Why should I bother?”
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