New Horizons is very nominal

We watched New Horizons make its phone call home last night. New Horizons is alive:

Is nominal a good thing? “Nominal” is beautiful. Nominal is perfect. Nominal is everything showing up exactly as we want it to. Amusingly, the team has been unsatisfied with calling things just nominal, and has been substituting “extremely nominal.”

This is longstanding NASA slang:

So if you want to know if MSL will nail the EDL and what it can do on different sols, you have to learn the language. …Let’s start with the rover’s name. In the halls of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it’s called MSL — short for Mars Science Laboratory. Spacecraft typically have technical names before being rechristened by the public through naming contests sponsored by NASA.

For example: the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed in 2004 were known as MER-A and MER-B for the longest time (MER is shorthand for Mars Exploration Rover.) …Before Curiosity can start science experiments, it must first survive an intense EDL — entry, descent and landing — or as NASA has come to call it: Seven minutes of terror.

Signals are received through the DSN, or Deep Space Network, a worldwide network of antenna dishes that communicates with interplanetary spacecraft. Nominal means A-OK. Not so for anomaly (translation: Houston, we have a problem.)

The dizzying naming system even extends to time. It takes Earth 24 hours to spin on its axis — the definition of a day. Mars spins more slowly than Earth — taking 24 hours and 39 minutes. To distinguish between Earth and Mars time, a Martian day is called a sol, Latin for “sun.” Yesterday on Mars is yestersol.

It’s going to take New Horizons 16 days to beam back all the images from its flyby.


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