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Science Meets Fiction
Poster of a woman siting in a space-age chair with starry background.  Text: Visit the Universe from your Armchair!

Science Meets Fiction

by Kayla McGrady ’05

Illustrations by Matthew Griffin

Four Carls are converting the dreams of science fiction writers into reality at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Jesse Kriss ’03 opened a presentation about his work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with a reference to Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon: “The Baltimore Gun Club launches a projectile from Florida with three men on board. In the sequel, Around the Moon, they return safely to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean.

“In 1969,” Kriss continued, “we [NASA] launched a projectile from Florida with three men on board. They made it to the moon and returned safely to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean. The Baltimore Gun Club was not involved.”

Located in Pasadena, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was founded by the California Institute of Technology in 1936 and joined forces with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, shortly after that agency was founded. JPL scientists have always been inspired by fiction. Indeed, in the 1960s, a JPL ad in Scientific American read, “When you were a kid, science fiction gave you a sense of wonder. Now you feel the same just by going to work.” A poster of this ad still hangs at the lab.

Today scientists and writers inspire each other in a reciprocal cycle. While their projects are in the planning stage, Kriss and his colleagues write fictional accounts to flesh out how scientists might use their new creations. “You could view these fictional scenes and storyboards as the most utilitarian science fiction possible,” says Kriss, who is senior design lead in the Human Interfaces Group, which specializes in facilitating successful interactions between people and technology.

Following are a few ways that JPL scientists continue to blur the lines between science and fiction.

Wide Open Spaces

"Visit the Universe" poster

What do you get when you put two data visualization designers with three software developers for 10 weeks? A virtual trip through space — or, more precisely, a computer program that displays the locations of extragalactic objects in three-dimensional space.

Designer Alex Sciuto ’09, a graduate student in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, worked on the project as a 2015 summer intern with From Data to Discovery, a program cosponsored by JPL, Caltech, and the nearby Art Center College of Design. “Astrophysicists use a lot of charts and diagrams,” he says. “We wanted to create a program that lets them navigate a 3-D universe so they can make deductions that are more difficult to see using existing [2-D] tools.”

The program is populated with data compiled from hundreds of sky surveys and tens of thousands of research publications. “We wanted to figure out how to do more with this really rich data,” says Sciuto.

Although 10 weeks isn’t enough time to complete the project, the team was able to construct a prototype that will allow JPL scientists to evaluate whether it merits further development. “We all agree that it’s cool, but the scientists have to decide if it’s something they would use throughout the day,” Sciuto says.

Seeing More

"Mars of Course" poster

Imagine that you’re an astronaut on the International Space Station. A piece of equipment has malfunctioned, so you have to figure out how to repair it. Luckily, getting help is as easy as putting on a headset. You look through the lenses and see a bright yellow arrow pointing to the first button you need to push, and instructions appear in midair.

That’s just what Sidekick — an augmented reality program Jesse Kriss ’03 and his team are developing using Microsoft’s HoloLens headset — will do. Sidekick has two modes: remote expert, which allows someone on Earth to see what the astronaut is seeing and add markers and instructions to the astronaut’s field of vision, and stand-alone companion, which is preprogrammed to guide an astronaut through certain technical tasks without help from anyone on the ground. “Because the HoloLens can detect the astronaut’s position within the environment, we can do things like highlight a particular piece of equipment or automatically layer annotations onto different pieces of the space station,” says Kriss. “The main goal is to help astronauts get the job done quickly. Crew time is an incredibly scarce resource.”

At the same time, Kriss is working on another augmented reality program called OnSight that will allow researchers on Earth to see a holographic rendering of Martian terrain, using data collected by the rover. OnSight will superimpose 3-D images of Mars over the actual surroundings of scientists’ offices, masking out their desks and computers so they can still see and use them normally.

Kriss acknowledges that the concept reminds him of the Star Trek holodeck. “I joke that it’s sort of like Starship Enterprise software,” he says. “It’s like science fiction, but it’s also practical for day-to-day work.”

Don't Crash


In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is dependent on sophisticated technology to help him land safely on Dagobah. When it malfunctions, he crashes. In reality, airplane pilots have similar struggles. Technical scientist Lawrence Sparks ’74 has worked to solve that problem.

When the Global Positioning System (GPS) was introduced, it wasn’t safe for airplane navigation. GPS works by sending satellite signals to receivers, which compute position from measurements of the time it takes for each signal to arrive at the receiver antenna. But distortions in the upper atmosphere — the ionosphere — can slow down those signals, potentially causing dangerous position errors for a pilot flying in low visibility. Although large airports can rely on radar to land planes safely in low visibility, many small airports can’t afford that technology and have to shut down when visibility is poor.

In partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration, JPL has helped create the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), designed to calculate how much distortion the ionosphere is causing at any given time and broadcast corrections to pilots, allowing them to use GPS safely. The system both makes position estimates more accurate and bounds their maximum possible margin of error. “Alaska, especially, appreciates this system,” Sparks says. “At the Juneau airport, for example, the landing strips are in valleys, so if visibility goes to zero, you have to know what your position is, because otherwise you could crash into a mountain.”

Sparks is one of the primary authors of WAAS’s ionospheric threat model, which advises pilots not to use GPS when the potential position error is too great (usually due to a storm in the ionosphere). Since the system was commissioned in 2003, Sparks has been working to improve WAAS’s accuracy, availability, and integrity. The system was initially designed to be overcautious, but that meant it would go offline during moderate ionospheric disruption. Sparks’s recent work allows the system to be used safely during moderate ionospheric storms, while still shutting down during severe ones. This delicate balance allows the system to be operational more often, without underestimating the threat due to signal delay. “If we discovered that the position error was actually greater than the bound broadcast by the system, we’d call that an instance of hazardously misleading information,” says Sparks. “Our goal is to have no more than one such instance for every 10 million landings. We have yet to encounter a single one since WAAS was launched.”

At the same time, JPL staff members are contributing to a dual-frequency system using new satellites that eventually will eliminate the need to correct for ionospheric disturbance. “It will essentially do away with all the work I’ve done, but that’s okay because we’ll have a better, safer system,” says Sparks.

Send a Robot

Send the Rover

Each morning Joy Crisp ’79 reviews amazing new pictures of the Martian landscape, sent to her computer by Curiosity, a robotic vehicle that can go where she can’t go. “It’s exciting to see the breathtaking scenery on Mars,” she says. “Curiosity wound its way over to Yellowknife Bay and then to Mount Sharp, and both were stunning. I wish I were there to see it with my own eyes, but this is pretty good.”

Crisp helps manage the 495 scientists on the Mars Science Laboratory (rover) program — 40 percent of whom are based at universities and institutions outside the United States — and serves as a liaison to the rovers’ JPL-based engineering and management team. She keeps up with the scientists’ analyses of the photos and chemical readings sent back by the rover and attends engineering meetings to troubleshoot problems that crop up when the rover suffers a mechanical breakdown or encounters challenging terrain.

Curiosity, the most recent Mars rover, was launched in 2011, landed on Mars in 2012, and might keep running until roughly 2024, which presents a challenge in itself. “Few of us use 10-year-old computers in our daily lives,” says Crisp. Yet JPL can’t simply replace the rover’s hardware every few years to incorporate technological advances. Instead, engineers have to change the way they command the rover — often in ways they couldn’t have imagined when the rover was built.

Plus, Curiosity has to stand up to weather conditions on Mars, including large temperature swings. “As time goes by, things break,” says Crisp, “but the engineers are good at finding workarounds to keep the rover going. Sometimes
we even send the rover new software to adjust to changes in the hardware.”

Curiosity and future rover missions offer a unique opportunity to understand not just Mars, but also Earth. By studying the data on geologic samples sent back by the rover, scientists may be able to determine if life ever existed on Mars — and more importantly, why or why not.

“On Earth, we have all this water on the surface and plate tectonics that are pulling things under,” says Crisp. That means that most of the ancient rocks are buried, have been altered by water, or are obscured by an overabundance of vegetation, and that makes it harder to find and examine them. “Whereas on Mars, a lot of ancient rock is exposed on the surface, so we have an extensive preserved geological record there that we don’t have on Earth.” Over time, data from those ancient Martian rocks may help scientists understand the genesis of planetary life. If life ever existed on Mars, microbes carried as stowaways on Martian meteorites might have provided the seeds for life on Earth.

The team’s hard work with the rover pays off in another important way: the pictures from Mars — available to the public and frequently used in classrooms — get children excited about science and space. “Kids see these pictures from Mars, and maybe they are inspired to go into related fields, or even just to learn more about science and how the universe works,” says Crisp.

After all, that excitement — whether it’s inspired by science or by science fiction — is what led the JPL staff members to their careers.