Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol

Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol

Author:Ozan Varol [VAROL, OZAN]
Language: eng
Format: epub, pdf
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Published: 2020-04-14T00:00:00+00:00

A Family of Hypotheses

Radio telescopes are used not only to scope out alien life as in Contact but also to make long-distance, interplanetary phone calls to spacecraft traveling through the solar system.15 The Deep Space Network—a combination of three giant radio antenna arrays—serves as the hub of this network. The tracking stations are spread equidistantly from each other across the globe in Goldstone, California; near Madrid, Spain; and near Canberra, Australia. As the Earth rotates and one station loses a signal, the next picks up the baton.

On December 3, 1999, the Madrid station was tracking the Mars Polar Lander as it barreled toward the Martian surface on the night of its scheduled landing. The lander was arriving at Mars a few months after the embarrassing loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter from the mismatch in units of measurement. This was NASA’s opportunity to save face.

At about 11:55 a.m. Pacific Time, the lander entered the Martian atmosphere and began its descent to the surface. As scheduled, the Madrid station lost the signal from the lander. If everything went according to plan, the Goldstone station would pick up the signal again at 12:39 p.m.

But 12:39 p.m. came and went with no word from the lander. The search for a signal continued for several days, with engineers repeatedly beaming commands to the lander. Their calls went unreturned.

Just when NASA was about to pronounce the lander dead, something strange happened. On January 4, 2000, after a month of silence from the lander, a signal from Mars was picked up by an extremely sensitive radio telescope at Stanford University. “It was the radio-frequency equivalent of a whistle,” explained Ivan Linscott, a senior research associate at Stanford.16 The whistle had the exact characteristics you would expect of a signal from the Mars Polar Lander. To verify the signal’s origins, the scientists told the spacecraft to send smoke signals by turning its “radio on and off in a distinctive sequence.”17 The spacecraft appeared to oblige. The scientists received the smoke signal and announced, much like Dr. Frankenstein, that the spacecraft was alive.

Except it wasn’t. The signal turned out to be a fluke. The Stanford scientists were experiencing a phenomenon known as “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”18 Radio telescopes in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom attempted to locate the signal but couldn’t replicate the Stanford results.

The problem was diagnosed by Francis Bacon nearly four centuries ago: “It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than negatives.”19 Stanford’s search technique was designed to ferret out signals from the Mars Polar Lander. It’s a signal the team members were expecting—no, hoping—to see. And that’s exactly what they saw.

What’s more, the scientists were emotionally attached to the lander’s survival. “It’s like having a loved one missing in action,” explained JPL research scientist John Callas.20 Desperately wanting to believe the lander was alive, they concluded that it was.

This wasn’t the first time scientists were hoodwinked by imaginary signals from Mars.


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