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Posted at 11:10 AM ET, 08/10/2012

NASA Curiosity crew members hang out, discuss what’s next for the mission

It’s Sol day 5 for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity and she — yes, she — is the gift that keeps on giving. High-resolution images continue to be sent back, both in black and white and in color.

While Curiosity keeps busy collecting data on Mars, here on Earth the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that got her there continues to receive questions and accolades from the science community and the general public. Members of the team joined us on Friday for a Google Hangout — among them Tracy Neilson, head of the rover’s fault protection team; Steve Collins, a member of the attitude control systems team; Martin Greco, one of two activity leads on the entry, descent and landing team; Scott McCloskey, who worked on the rover’s mobility system; mission controller Bobak Ferdowsi; avionics system engineer Jonathan Grinblat and systems engineer Aaron Stehura.

Asked whether information was being fed back from Curiosity that NASA was keeping from the public, crew members said there isn’t much. The flight software code was the only exception, said Neilson, who will be working on the software upload to the rover scheduled for Sunday.

A Post reader asked whether the patterns in the wheels were Morse code for “JPL.” They’re not, said Ferdowsi, saying that the patterns allow analysts back on Earth to determine the rover’s rate and direction of movement.

But there are a couple of fun bits the crew was able to put into the rover and its programming. The fill packets, said Neilson, have many of the crew members’ names in there. Also, when they turn on the SAM instrument, the crew gets back a message: “Sam I am, I am Sam.”

The team also discussed the wake-up song tradition, where every morning the crew plays a song for Curiosity. Collins said the tradition more than likely dates back to NASA’s manned spaceflight missions.

As for Curiosity’s personality on Twitter, “I think she’s a bit subdued,” said Grinblat, to laughter.

But she has taken a jab, albeit a light one, at her mission controller’s newfound mohawk-related fame, posting a photo of a sign at NASA’s offices that read, “Bobak is my co-pilot” and saying it’s ”good for some lolz.”

“We’re good friends, we go back a ways,” said Ferdowsi, who has worked on the mission for years. And Ferdowsi isn’t alone when it comes to newfound Internet fame.

“I was the Bobak of my era,” said Collins, whose long, gray hair has attracted an online following as well.

“We have a lot of famous hair on the team, that’s for sure,” said Stehura.

Members of the team were also asked about the hurdles they faced during their school years — points where they doubted their future in science.

“It took me a while to realize you have to work really hard to achieve your goals and reach your dreams,” said Greco, going on to say he cleaned pools for a time, stepping away from science. He quickly realized it wasn’t for him. He eventually went back to school and went on to work for JPL.

For Neilson, first-year calculus was the sticking point, so much so that she got a tutor. The second year was much easier, she said, but that first year, she estimated, roughly 75 percent of her peers dropped the class.

“Math and science take practice,” said Collins, “You gotta put in the hours.”

What stood out above all the other discussion points, though, was how often each team member recognized the sheer numbers of people — “thousands and thousands” said Collins — who contributed to the Curiosity mission. When asked about mentors they hadn’t yet had a chance to thank publicly, team members were quick to recognize their colleagues participating in the chat.

And, in case you missed it, the Post’s Haley Crum spoke with Ferdowsi earlier this week .

For those wondering about the Curiosity playlist, during testing and launch it was heavy on ’80s hair metal, said Ferdowsi, thanks to a senior manager’s preference. And Day 1’s wake-up song for the rover: “Good Morning” by the Beatles.

Ferdowsi also discussed his hope of inspiring at least a couple of kids to get into math and science.

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By  |  11:10 AM ET, 08/10/2012

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