Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology, is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) of NASA. The Laboratory has a wide-ranging charter for solar system exploration, Earth observation, astrophysical research, and technology development. It is located on 176 acres in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena, CA, and employs approximately 5,000 scientists, engineers, and support personnel. JPL also operates and manages NASA’s Deep Space Network, a worldwide system of antennas that communicates with spacecraft and conducts radar and radio astronomy studies.
JPL is NASA’s lead center for robotic missions. An example of one such mission is Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). MSL is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. Scheduled to launch between November 25 and December 18, 2011, MSL is a rover that will assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life.
To find out, the rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. The rover will analyze dozens of samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. The record of the planet’s climate and geology is essentially “written in the rocks and soil” — in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. The rover’s onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars, and will assess what the Martian environment was like in the past.
The demands of space missions provide the impetus to JPL scientists and engineers to push the boundaries of design and technology to achieve smaller size, better performance, and less power consumption in a cost-constrained environment. Many hardware, software, and materials technologies developed here have direct applications on Earth, such as healthcare, energy, security, and consumer electronics. For example, JPL is working with healthcare developers and institutions on technology applications for diagnosis, early detection, prevention, and medical research. Other partnerships are currently underway in fuel cell technology and thermoelectrics for the automotive industry, robotics for the mining industry, and actuation and drilling technology for the construction and remodeling industry.
JPL is home to facilities unparalleled in the United States. The Microdevices Laboratory (microdevices.jpl.nasa.gov) features a state-of-the-art electron beam lithography system with 3D patterning capabilities for flat or curved surfaces, as well as etching and deposition systems for silicon, III-V, and carbon nanotube research or flight hardware development work. JPL also has advanced expertise in supercomputing, cluster computing, and cloud computing, as well as unique science data analysis, modeling, simulation, and software reliability tools. Testing capabilities include multimodal vibration tables, solar, radiation, and thermal vacuum chambers, and a highly experienced test team. Because it is driven by demands for mission safety and precise science, JPL has some of the highest-quality and most sensitive integration and test facilities in the western hemisphere. Industry partners have taken advantage of the Laboratory’s unique assets to safely and securely develop and test new technology.