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How the pandemic changed the protocol for Mars

Veteran spacecraft engineer Chris Voorhees has witnessed six Mars landings in the course of his career, and he’s playing a role in the next one as president of a Seattle-based engineering firm called First Mode.

But even though First Mode has been helping NASA ensure that its Perseverance rover will get to the surface of Mars safely on Feb. 18, Voorhees will experience it in the same way millions of others around the world will: from home, watching a live stream via YouTube.

At least he’ll be munching on the traditional good-luck peanuts. “I feel weird if I don’t do it,” Voorhees said.

This Mars mission is already weird enough — and not just because it would be the first mission to store up samples for eventual return to Earth, and the first to try flying a mini-helicopter over Mars.

Because of the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, the hundreds of scientists and engineers behind the Perseverance rover mission have had to work almost exclusively from home. On the big day, only a minimal crew of ground controllers will be on duty at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Mallory Lefland, a JPL veteran who’s now a senior systems engineer at First Mode, will be there as part of the mission’s team for entry, descent and landing, or EDL.

“Most people won’t be on lab, working their shift, until 24 hours before landing,” she said last week during a mission preview hosted by Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Whether they’re working at JPL or working from home, the people in charge of the $2.7 billion mission will serve mostly as spectators during the final minutes of the rover’s seven-month, 300 million-mile journey to Mars.

The capsule containing the rover will be on its own as it goes through a sequence known as the “seven minutes of terror.” Because of the finite speed of light, it takes more than 11 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth. That means the rover will have finished its landing sequence before the team at JPL even knows it started.

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First Mode gets in on Psyche mission to asteroid

Seattle-based First Mode has been awarded a $1.8 million subcontract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build flight hardware for NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which is due to conduct the first-ever up-close study of a metal-rich asteroid.

Under the terms of the firm, fixed-price contract, First Mode is to deliver a deployable aperture cover that will shield Psyche’s Deep Space Optical Communications system, or DSOC, from contamination and debris during launch. The contract calls for the hardware to be delivered in early 2021.

Psyche is set for launch in 2022, and after a years-long cruise that includes a Mars flyby in 2023, it’s scheduled to arrive at the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt in early 2026.

This won’t be the first visit to an asteroid, but it will be the first visit to an asteroid that’s primarily made of nickel and iron rather than rubble, rock or ice. Scientists say the 140-mile-wide hunk of metal could be the exposed core of a protoplanet that was stripped of its rocky mantle early in the solar system’s history.

In addition to studying the asteroid Psyche, the spacecraft will test laser-based communications with Earth from deep space. The DSOC system’s aperture cover is designed to open early in the mission to kick off the technology demonstration.

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Mars mission puts working from home to the ultimate test

The launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover marks the start of a seven-month-long journey involving tens of millions of miles of travel — but it also marks the end of an eight-year-long journey involving millions of miles of travel on the part of scientists and engineers across the country.

And perhaps the biggest marvel is that, in the end, most of them got the rover and its scientific instruments ready for launch while working from home.

Working from home has been a tough thing to manage for many of the businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing restrictions. It’s been tough for NASA as well.

“Putting a spacecraft together that’s going to Mars, and not making a mistake — it’s hard, no matter what. Trying to do it during the middle of a pandemic, it’s a lot harder,” Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a pre-launch briefing.

Fortunately, NASA and its partners could draw upon decades’ worth of experience in remote operations. “When the pandemic came along, it didn’t make that much difference in the way I operate, because I was already used to working remotely with JPL,” said the University of Washington’s Tim Elam, who’s part of the science team for the rover’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

Once the rover is on its way, working remotely will become even more routine. “Pasadena is about the same distance away from Mars that Seattle is,” Elam joked.

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First Mode strikes $13.5M deal for mining tech

Mine haul truck
An ultra-class haul truck carries tons of ore. (Anglo American Photo)

First Mode, a Seattle engineering firm founded by veterans of the Planetary Resources asteroid mining venture, says it’ll be working on innovations for the earthly mining industry under the terms of a three-year, $13.5 million agreement with Anglo American.

The deal demonstrates that First Mode is branching out from space applications, a year after it was founded.

The company has been providing design, engineering and system development services for projects including NASA’s next Mars rover, the Psyche mission to an iron-rich asteroid, the Europa Clipper spacecraft and a proposed moon rover — but Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, is its first announced client for terrestrial technologies.

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First Mode backs plan for marathon moon rover

Intrepid moon rover
This artist’s conception provides a rough idea of what the Intrepid moon rover would look like. (ASU / First Mode Graphic)

Seattle-based First Mode is working with Arizona State University and other partners to draw up a concept for a rover that could travel more than 1,100 miles across the moon’s surface over a four-year period.

NASA is funding the concept study, which is due next June.

The rover, dubbed Intrepid, would travel farther than any previous rover in NASA’s history to check out more than 100 sites for signs of lunar water ice.  Intrepid would also map radiation, solar wind and the chemical makeup of lunar soil. The mission’s proposed landing site is in the region of the moon’s Reiner Gamma magnetic anomaly, north of the lunar equator, and the rover would wend its way northward to Aristarchus Crater.

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First Mode and WWU will make a gizmo for Mars

Goniometer
A goniometer is a tool that either measures an angle or helps position an object at a very precise angle for measurement. (First Mode Illustration / Peter Illsley)

Seattle’s First Mode team and Western Washington University say they’ve won a NASA contract to advance the technology for sizing up rocks on Mars.

The project, funded under NASA’s Solar System Workings program, will support the development of an automated tool known as a goniometer. Such a tool could be used on future Mars missions to measure angles precisely in three dimensions.

“If you used a protractor in grade school to measure angles, you used a simple version of a goniometer,” First Mode’s Kathleen Hoza and Rhae Adams explained in a blog posting about the project.

On Mars, such a device should facilitate spectral observations of rock samples at different angles, opening the way for more detailed chemical analyses. One of the cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover has been used to make goniometer measurements in Mars’ Gale Crater.

Melissa Rice, a planetary scientist at Western Washington University, is principal investigator for the newly announced project.

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First Mode looks ahead to moon missions

First Mode's Chris Voorhees
First Mode’s president and chief engineer, Chris Voorhees, shows off the employee-owned company’s digs near Seattle’s Pike Place Market. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

One year after engineers from the Planetary Resources asteroid mining company peeled off to form their own employee-owned startup, known as First Mode, they can point to the profitable work they’ve done on space missions that are heading for Mars and, yes, an asteroid.

But now they’re widening their focus to take in projects that are closer to home — including mining operations back here on Earth, and NASA’s Artemis effort to send astronauts to the moon’s surface by 2024.

“We’re growing our own infrastructure here,” Chris Voorhees, the company’s president and chief engineer, told GeekWire during a tour of First Mode’s office space in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, not far from Pike Place Market.

So far, First Mode has made a name for itself as a design and engineering consultancy, but now it’s putting the infrastructure in place to build hardware as well. Its in-house clean room bears testament to that ambition.

“We really like the idea of flight hardware getting delivered out of Pike Place Market,” Voorhees said. “We think that’s pretty cool.”

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Veteran asteroid miners launch First Mode

First Mode lab
A wide-angle view provides an unusual perspective of First Mode’s new lab space. (First Mode Photo)

Planetary Resources was assimilated into the ConsenSys blockchain venture months ago, but a troop of engineers who used to work for the asteroid mining company is seeking out new frontiers with a new company called First Mode.

And this time, asteroids aren’t the final frontier.

“First Mode is working with industries on and off the planet to do design and creative engineering work, but also to build hardware and build solutions that get deployed around the solar system as well as a lot of harsh and challenging environments here on planet Earth,” Rhae Adams, vice president of strategy and business development, told GeekWire.

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