At a place like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where all eyes are trained on the sky, it’s easy to neglect the wonders closer to home.
That’s why Luke Johnson, a graphic designer at JPL, decided to boldly go where no employee had gone before: to each and every building on the 177-acre site, in numerical order. “JPL is in the business of space exploration,” he said. “This was about lab exploration.”
Armed with a logbook, GPS and camera, Johnson walked 52.2 miles over four days, documenting everything, from the earthquake training area, which is now behind building 325, to a plastic skeleton in an elevator shaft in building 301.
Here are a few of the curiosities Johnson unearthed.
It’s hard to be late in building 298, where test labs are devoted to timekeeping and frequency research.
Here, time is measured by the movement of various instruments, including LITS-9, one of the world’s most stable clocks. The refrigerator-size device, shown here and built in 2000, measures the frequency at which mercury ions oscillate between a higher and lower energy state, then uses that alternation to keep time — similar to a pendulum in a grandfather clock.
While the LITS-9 remains on the ground, JPL engineers are working on a smaller and lighter Deep Space Atomic Clock, which will measure time using the same mercury ion technology and will be placed aboard spacecraft to provide more precise tracking for deep-space exploration missions.
Sometimes even a spacecraft needs to be cozy. Scientists and engineers at the Blanket Shop design thermal blankets to insulate instruments on spacecraft, protecting them from temperature fluctuations.
Blankets are made of 15 layers of the plastic Mylar that are separated with another 15 polyester sheets. Each blanket’s outer layer varies depending on the spacecraft’s destination.
The Juno spacecraft, launched Aug. 5, 2011, has blankets coated with germanium, a metalized material that conducts electricity; and Kapton, a high-temperature plastic film, to ensure that the surface of the blankets reflects sunlight and remains grounded while the probe gathers data from the highly charged environment around Jupiter.
The CloudSat mission, which studies Earth’s clouds, has blankets with a top layer of Teflon to reflect the sun’s heat.
The Center of the Universe — officially dubbed the Space Flight Operations Facility — controls NASA’s Deep Space Network, a system of 15 antennas strategically placed in three different locations around the world that control unmanned spacecraft.
The facility monitors signals being beamed from the space program’s star performers, including the Mars rover Curiosity, the Cassini orbiter exploring Saturn and its neighborhood, and the Spitzer Space Telescope, which follows Earth around the sun, collecting information on stars and galaxies.
The operations center landed a spot in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
The numbers of the buildings at JPL reflect the order in which they were built.
In all, map-maker Luke Johnson tallied that he walked 52.2 miles over the course of four days on his quest to chart JPL’s sprawling 177-acre site.
That's a lot of footsteps—and innumerable lunch hours—but a fascinating glimpse into a rarely-seen research center.
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