Insight: A Mars Rover

There have been a few rovers sent to the red planet in the past, but in December 2018 a new robot landed safely on Mars! I was lucky to be able to see a presentation by a retired scientist from the Jet Propulsion laboratories on the new rover, “Insight.” I went to this presentation last week on Jan. 24th. It was set up by the AIAA Club (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics).

Around 40 people were at the presentation. It was in the lecture hall I had my chemistry for engineers class in last term. I like the room because it has great lefty desks. I got to the presentation a little early and saw some people I have class with this term. The room was already dim and the powerpoint was pulled up on the projector.

The power point had great information about the project, including the process of designing the rover and mission, logistics of getting the rover to Mars, and info about its job once it lands. They took quite a long time to build the robot! They used a lot of simulations and made a prototype. Once Insight landed, Jet Propulsion labs made a sand bed to mimic its surroundings on Mars. They even made a robot that is just a little lighter to match its weight on Mars, and they practice everything they want Insight to do, here on Earth.

Landing on Mars was a big part of the presentation. It sounds like one of the most complicated parts of the operation. There were two videos in the powerpoint explaining what it takes to enter Mars’ atmosphere and actually land correctly on the ground. The first video was an animation of what happens to the rover as it enters the atmosphere. It has to hit at the perfect angle so it doesn’t bounce off, or hit too hard. The heat shield protects it until the air thins, then it pops off and the parachute extends. Eventually the parachute and shell pop off and the rover lands using small booster. They have to click off at exactly the right time so Insight doesn’t flip over when it hits the ground.

An engineer from JPL talked in the second video. Did you know that the rocket carrying Insight launched from California? Most rockets launch from Florida to use the Earth’s momentum as a sling shot because they can go over the ocean. But you can’t use the Earth’s rotation in California because you can risk going over the U.S. They had to launch from California however because there are tons of flights going out of Florida, and they would have to stop them all up for a month. Going to Mars is super time sensitive and the couldn’t risk not being able to leave when they need.

In fact, the first time they were going to launch Insight a couple years ago, they realized that there was a tiny leak in a critical vacuum, and had to fix it. The leak was so small that it would take a tire hundreds of years or something to go flat if it had one. But since they missed the right flight they had to wait two years to launch again. But they got it out and it landed great!

Now Insight is preparing to drill up to 5 meters into the ground to take samples. The drill it uses uses a hammer to hit the drill bit further into the ground hit by hit. Insight also has a seismometer to measure tremors and earth quakes. It is so sensitive is records tiny things from all the way across Mars. Insight also has a shield it is swinging in place over the seismometer right now. It has one arm it uses to take pictures and place instruments. Its kind of crazy to think humans built and sent something so far away and its up there right now, with its solar panels fanned out and it instruments humming away.


Cereal Wars

What is the best cereal and what criteria do we use to determine this? I would argue there are 3 broad categories used to judge cereal by consumers. 1. All consumers are concerned with the quantity and quality of the product they are buying as compared to the price. For cereal this means we look at price per ounce and how good it tastes and is for you. 2. A balance of taste. Nowadays if you walk into the cereal isle, 50 or more sugary blasted colorful boxes jump out at you. I can’t handle the overwhelming explosion of sugar in my mouth, so how the cereal tastes is important to me. And last but not least 3. Texture. How cereal feels is important as well. Are the pieces big and only 1 or 2 fit on the spoon, do they melt in the bottom of the bowl, are they all the same type or does the box have a mixture? These are all things we think about when evaluating what cereal to buy.

Price is a broad category for cereal. Price depends on the quantity and quality of the box you are buying. Quantity is how much per ounce you are buying, but also how big the box is. Larger boxes last longer, and for someone who doesn’t have a car, going to the store can take a while so having larger boxes of cereal is peace of mind because I do not have to worry about running out.

Balance between sugar and savory taste also impacts consumers opinions of cereal. Most breakfast cereal brands are targeted to kids who typically lean towards the hyper sugary types. Cereals on the opposite side of the spectrum, for adults, tend to be marketed as healthy and focus less on taste and more on fiber and nutrition facets. In fact, I have found that cereals rarely have both taste and nutrition on their side, they tend to have one or the other. For this reason, modifiers such as fresh fruit and granola, that can be added to cereals lacking in the taste department, are helpful. However, having really good tasting cereal is a motivator to get up in the morning and can be beneficial. The catch is that the sugariness has to be reasonable and not over the top like many choices out there.

Texture can be interpreted in many different ways, but there are some categories that can be outlined right away. Cereal commonly comes as puffs (little balls), O’s (cheerio shaped), flakes, or shreds (shredded wheat like). Then there are also mixed types, like marshmallow and puffs, or fiber brands with flakes and fiber pieces. Texture comes down to personal preference, but some aspects include how big the bites can be and how many pieces can fit on a spoon. As well as how resistant to sogginess the cereal is. Some like their cereal to be soggy. Other cereals can be too brittle to bite until milk is poured on. Other types of cereal flavor the milk as a little treat at the end of the bowl. There is also the possibility of mixing multiple types of cereal in the same bowl, which gives way the possibility of mixing and matching to find a good balance. The are are many factor in choosing the right cereal, but honestly going for gut instinct is likely good enough for most people.

Infinities, Existence, and Uniqueness

Getting a teacher off track is always fun in class. There is usually a student who is good at convincing the teacher to tell a personal story, or go on a tangent about the subject. Today in differential equations we went on an infinities tangent. We were discussing the “largest” interval a function could be valid on, and we came to the conclusion that the interval was (-2,∞).

Someone from the front of the class asked, “well, wouldn’t (-1,∞) be just as big?” And just like that, the class was wildly derailed. The teacher apologized and said he was using a more intuitive sense of “largest,” but the damage was done. My brain had already started to hurt, because everyone was asking about infinities at the same time. The professor was frantically fielding abstract and esoteric questions that had nothing to do with first order differential equations, and a brave student stepped forward to calm the storm by suggesting that people watch Vsauce video on YouTube, “How to Count Past Infinity.” I watched it right before writing this post.

Aleph Null is the cardinal number that represents all finite numbers. I have never been one to enjoy thinking about infinity, or the universe, or things so big it’s impossible to keep track of them. So I was happy to hear there was a simple solution. This is what Aleph Null looks like א‎0. But unfortunately, there is more after Aleph Null, much more, so much more that mathematicians justify the arbitrary infinities they are making up with axioms, and just say they’re true. I’m not going to try and stop them, but it seems too meta to give themselves that much power. I ultimately found no closure, except in the point that there are “uncountable sets,” such as sets that cannot be reached from the bottom. It kind of limits human’s power, which to me gives the numbers more credibility because mathematicians are relinquishing some control and admitting they cannot count up the number. 

After the barrage of complications with infinite intervals was cleared up, my professor wrote “Existence and Uniqueness” on the paper (he projects his writing on printer paper onto the screen), and said “I know, kind of esoteric.” I thought he was joking, but we learned a fundamental principle about the existence and uniqueness of solutions to differential equations. My math class today turned out to be awesome. Besides the infinite discussion, two other friends and I walked to the top of Waldo hall in the 10 minutes between the recitation and lecture. Waldo hall looks like a castle from the outside, and it was just as fun to walk around inside it. We jiggled a precarious bag of pretzels out of the bottom a vending machine that someone earlier that day had probably been very mad about after spending $1.75 just to get them stuck beneath the M&M’s. And we also solved a fun slope fields packet. I am really starting to enjoy the people and format of the class. My homework is done for the week in math so now I’m just touching up my integrating skills and hoping we don’t have any pop-quizes.

Finance Club

Tonight I went to the first finance club of winter term. I was nervous going at first because I didn’t know anyone else in the club. I looked up where the meeting was being held at 5:50, 10 minutes before it started at 6. It turns out the meeting was in Austin Hall, a business building right next to my dorm I had always wanted to check out! I walked over and up to the second floor. The hall was still buzzing with people, I think there may have been a career development event happening because most of the students were wearing business attire. I was excited to see what I could learn about investing.

Austin 274 where the meeting was held was a medium sized classroom with horizontal rows of tables pointed towards the white boards and projectors. There were maybe 25 guys and 2 girls in the the club. The club officers all introduced themselves and gave a short intro for the club advisor who lives in L.A. but teaches classes online, and will travel back to Corvallis occasionally.

We skyped the club advisor for the rest of the meeting. He originally majored in molecular biology, but ended getting a job in the investing industry and double majored in finance. He worked in Honolulu and Hong Kong, and it sounds like he has had hard jobs and been very dedicated to get where he is. He said a misconception about the finance industry is that everyone is like the Wolf on Wall Street and parties and does drugs. He said it’s actually a very nerdy profession.

Markets and investing seem very interesting me. The club advisor said passive investments are good ways for busy students, and also recommended the book Corporate Finance by Ross, Westerfield, and Jaffe. I may try to read it and see what I can learn. When he was in college he did day trading for fun and that is how he got involved in the industry.

Looking forward with the club, they have a game called Investopedia. The rules are going to be explained next week and I am excited to participate. I think I am the only engineering major, which has never been the case for me at a club before. Hopefully that means I will meet lots of new types of people. There is also a poker night because apparently traders play a lot of poker. I won’t be surprised if I get painfully outplayed because I have to admit I am unexperienced at poker. I can tell already that this club is going to be a great learning experience for me.