April 1, 1989
Joseph D. Zeleznik, Attorney 300 Reservation Street Hancock, MI 49930
Thanks for your note of March 28. This reply is NOT, repeat not, an April Fool's Joke!
The response you received from the Smithsonian representative was garbage (you may quote me!): total garbage!
Look. If they can't "focus" the camera on specific objects . . . why are they literally spending millions to send it all the way to Mars?! Any amateur photographer knows that anything beyond a half mile or so is essentially "at infinity" -- so even a fixed-focused Brownie could take
spectacular, FOCUSED images from a hundred miles or so "upstairs" (provided there was a means of getting the film back to the drugstore!).
Seriously, the answer you received was a blatant and arrogant example of "professional stonewalling" -- the assumption that a technicallysounding answer would simply shut you up, since "average Americans are too ignorant about space physics to really understand these things . . ." I hope you feel insulted -- because you were.
I hope you also are thinking hard about civil servants -- paid by your tax dollars -- who assume they can get away with such absurdities . . . and plan to write to this man's boss at the Smithsonian with an appropriate complaint -- and send a copy to Bill Nelson, Chairman of the House subCommittee on Space Science and Applications. We have appointments next week with members of the Committee Staff, preparation for our request to testify before the full sub-Committee. With your permission, I plan to show them your original March 28 hand-written note, so the arrival in Nelson's office of a copy of your formal response to Zimbelman's superior would be perfectly timed.
Now, in fairness, I should mention he may have said "We can't point the camera at specific targets" (which is technically true) -- but which is STILL technically irrelevant!
LANDSAT spacecraft in orbit around Earth are in semi-polar orbits -almost identical to the orbit planned for Mars Observer around Mars (the experience gathered from the LANDSAT series, incidentally, is the reason why). LANDSAT, in that orbit, passes directly over every spot on Earth every 18 days; the combination of the orbital revolution of the spacecraft about every ninety minutes, and the 24 hour rotation of the Earth under the moving spacecraft, create an almost identical geometry every 18 days.
On Mars, because it's farther from the sun (thus moving slower), a similar orbit -- designed to allow the spacecraft to pass directly over the same spot at the same lighting (which is very important for some studies) would occur less often -- about once every 36 days, as opposed to once every 18 days for LANDSAT.
Yes, the Mars Observer camera can't be independently pointed at specific targets; it's aimed straight down, looking at roughly a one-mile square (for the highest resolution mode) directly beneath the spacecraft, as that square "footprint" is moved along the planet's surface by a combination of the orbital motion of the spacecraft and the planet's rotation.
So, to take pictures of any specific target (such as the Face), all mission planers have to do is calculate when the spacecraft will pass over any particular point on Mars -- then begin taking a series of images before and after the calculated point passes directly beneath the spacecraft. If they miss (because of inaccuracies in spacecraft navigation, target position on existing Mars maps, etc), all they have to do is wait 36 days ( more or less), and try again.
Patience, good navigation, and the inexorability of celestial mechanics are the key to taking pictures of ANYTHING on Mars from Mars Observer. "Focusing" or "pointing" have nothing to do with it!
Joe, you were handed a lie -- outright and deliberate, no matter how you look at. And very inept at that. The continuing question is: why? What are they afraid of, that they'll make such rediculous technical mistakes -- and in public -- in an attempt to get this to go away?
We're going to find out.
Richard C. Hoagland