Mars Postponed: Launch Delay Gives Little Company Another Chance to ‘Wow The Public’

When NASA announced last week it was postponing the launch of its next mission to Mars by 26 months, Michael Ravine says his heart sank—and then he breathed a sigh of relief.As the advanced projects manager at San Diego’s Malin Space Science Systems, Ravine says his team has been working frantically to deliver two cameras for the mission by the end of January. They are the last two of four cameras that NASA hired the company to build for the Mars Science Laboratory, an SUV-size rover designed for backcountry four-wheeling across the Martian landscape.

NASA’s decision to delay the launch that was set for next October until 2011 was disappointing, Ravine says. But the extra time could give one of San Diego’s most unusual business ventures a chance to restore advanced optical capabilities that NASA was forced to delete from the two cameras to meet its test schedule.

Malin’s 2004 proposal called for building identical stereoscopic cameras that would be mounted on masts aboard the big Mars rover. Ravine says that for several reasons their plans included a wide-field zoom lens in each mast camera. One was the fact that Ravine had recruited “Titanic” filmmaker James Cameron to create a movie about Mars. “We proposed this integrated camera system that could do the science imaging that NASA wanted, but also had this zoom capability,” Ravine says. “It would have functionally been HD video from Mars.”

After NASA eliminated the zoom lens capability last year, Ravine says, “Our ability to wow the public went away.” As for Cameron, Ravine says, “We didn’t lose him formally, but he’s working full-time now on another movie.”

1999 Image of Martian North Polar Cap in Summer by Mars Orbiter Camera

If you have seen any aerial images of Mars over the past 15 years or so, the chances are high that Malin Space Science made the camera that captured them. The company’s technology has helped revolutionize our scientific understanding of Mars’ planetary geology. These images, for example, taken by the company’s camera aboard the Mars Global Surveyor, show gullies formed on Mars by flowing water.

These images show sedimentary rock formations on Mars, which means bodies of water existed on the red planet for long periods of time.

And these images, taken two years apart, indicate that the Martian South polar ice cap is receding.

Are people really interested the landscape of a barren, frozen planet so far away?

The chief scientist for Phoenix Mars Lander estimates that between 50 million and 60 million people actively followed the mission, which sent its last signal back to Earth last month.

The company was founded by Michael Malin, who was working as a planetary geologist at Arizona State University when he received a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1987 for $250,000, no strings attached. Malin used the funds to start his own company in San Diego, generating revenue entirely from government contracts—building cameras for deep space probes and providing services to plan missions, acquire data, and process, analyze, and archive the pictures.

The company, which today has 30 employees, has been trying to transition from its traditional base in academic space research to something more commercial, Ravine says.

“I feel really grateful to get the opportunity to work on these projects in a small team, and a small company environment,” Ravine says. “We really get far more responsibility here than we ever would if we were at a place like JPL, Ball or Lockheed,” referring to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin.

Part of the reason for seeking more commercial work, Ravine explains, is the disappointment that seems to go with launching U.S. spacecraft toward Mars. “They can crash,” Ravine says. “They can blow up. They can forget to turn themselves on.” And oh, yeah: “They can get delayed.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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