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JPL Welcomes Earthlings

Lab's 30 exhibits range from planetary imaging to tracking of spacecraft.


The technological know-how that allows us to touch the heavens--as well as alter the shape of the Mattel aisle at the local toy store--will be on display Saturday and Sunday at Jet Propulsion Laboratory's annual open house in Pasadena.

The commercial technology booth is expected to be popular because of the Mars Sojourner Hot Wheels Action Pack, an accurate miniature production of the real thing that is in limited release and flying off the shelves at Toys R Us, says Merle McKenzie, manager of the commercial technology program.

"What we try to do is tell a story that starts with what we are interested in in terms of space exploration. Then we show how the same basic technique is used for a company's need. We trace it through the original NASA need to how it can benefit us down here on Earth," she says.

Making what goes on behind the walls at JPL accessible to the outside world is the overall mission behind the open house, which drew 30,000 visitors last year, says Kimberly Lievense, manager of the public services office. A total of 600 JPL employees have volunteered to answer questions about the 30 exhibits that range from planetary imaging to spacecraft tracking.

The self-guided tour begins with a full-scale 30-foot-tall replica of the Cassini spacecraft, which takes off for Saturn in October. Nearby will be a display of some of the 600,000 autographs of people from around the world who responded to a "send your signature to Saturn" drive.

"It really touched a nerve. People got really excited about having their signature go up in space. A lot of people will be looking for theirs," says Susan Barber, Cassini administration manager. (The John Hancocks will make the trip via CD-ROM.)

Overall, the big space missions are a huge drawing card, and several models will be on display, Lievense says. Two full-scale replicas of Sojourner, a "micro rover" that is to land on Mars July 4 aboard the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft, can be viewed in a yard made to look like the Martian landscape. Full-scale copies of Galileo and Voyager will be set up indoors.

"It's always exciting to see the actual size of a spacecraft and to get a general idea of what's out there flying around," Lievense says. Get a feel for the shrinking spacecraft of the future at the microspace systems technology exhibit, which presents a full-scale replica of a "microspacecraft" that's about the size of a basketball.

Exhibits with freebies tend to pull in the crowds, too, whether it's a make-your-own paper model of the Cassini spacecraft or the dozen free lithographs that will be handed out at the presentation on the Hubble telescope.

Free color photos of Jupiter and its moon also will be given out by the staff of the near infrared mapping spectrometer, a science instrument on Galileo. If you have your eye on a free photo of the heavens, it might behoove you to get there early because supplies are limited, Barber says.

Besides the Mattel toys, other commercial products on display range from an infrared ear thermometer, which uses the same sensing device as spacecraft, to a camera so small the chip that runs it can fit on the end of your finger.

Other presentations will include raffles of aerogel, a sponge-like substance made of 99.9% air that will be used to capture dust from a comet tail; pins for children from 5 to 13 who complete a word puzzle based on terms associated with the Ulysses spacecraft exhibit; and a demonstration of the robot-assisted microsurgery system, a NASA-developed robotic arm that helps surgeons perform delicate surgery.

Future scientists can test what it's like to eat in the JPL company cafeteria, where hamburgers and hot dogs will be served, and pick up souvenirs to commemorate their worldly day learning about the ongoing research of space.


Open house at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena; Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Parking at JPL. Free. Call (818) 354-5011.

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