• Post category:Space Technology
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We will discuss about one of the important research and development centers: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

JPL is a federally-funded research and development center managed by Caltech for NASA. In a series of 2-3 emails, we will cover the history, groundbreaking research, and its impact on science, people, and the planet. JPL was building spacecraft before NASA even existed, and today it’s the space agency’s go-to center for the robotic exploration of worlds beyond Earth.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Image Credits: NASA/JPL
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Image Credits: NASA/JPL

The Roots of JPL

JPL don’t make jets or rockets, so why are they called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?

It all started in the 1930s in Pasadena, California when a group of Caltech graduate students and amateur rocket enthusiasts began experimenting with rocket motors. Unable to test the motors at Caltech due to the risk of fires or explosions, they set up in the Arroyo Seco, a mostly dry wash on Pasadena’s west border. As global tensions rose before World War 2, their rocket tests caught the attention of the U.S. Army, which began sponsoring the development of rocket technology and missile systems.

The GALCIT rocketeers taking a break from setting up their experimental rocket motor in the Arroyo Seco. Left to right: Rudolph Schott, Apollo M. O. Smith, Frank Malina, Edward Forman, Jack Parsons. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The GALCIT rocketeers taking a break from setting up their experimental rocket motor in the Arroyo Seco. Left to right: Rudolph Schott, Apollo M. O. Smith, Frank Malina, Edward Forman, Jack Parsons. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After the war, interest in space exploration spawned a rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite into Earth orbit in October 1957, the Space Race heated up. To catch up, JPL built Explorer 1, which launched in January 1958 and became the first American Earth-orbiting satellite. Later that year, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was founded, and JPL was transferred to the agency by the Army. Since then, JPL has abandoned rocket development for space exploration but remained under management by Caltech, which is several miles away in Pasadena. And the rest…is space history.

Let’s see some lesser known research and activities carried out by JPL

The FINDER technology can locate individuals buried under rubble in disaster scenarios. This photo is from a previous test. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DHS
The FINDER technology can locate individuals buried under rubble in disaster scenarios. This photo is from a previous test. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DHS

FINDER for First responders

JPL and DHSSTD developed a search and rescue tool for first responders called FINDER. It stands for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response. First responders can use FINDER to locate people still alive who are buried in rubble after a disaster or terrorist attack. FINDER uses microwave radar to detect breathing and pulses.

There are many potential uses in medicine as well: A device based on FINDER could monitor the vital signs of someone who is trapped in a car or quarantined with an extremely contagious disease such as Ebola. In these situations, first responders could measure a patient’s heartbeat without having to physically touch them.

In the wreckage of a collapsed textile factory and another building in the Nepalese village of Chautara, four men were rescued, thanks to this technology. FINDER helped uncover these survivors, two from each destroyed building — in one of the hardest-hit areas of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled Nepal on April 25. The technology detected the men’s presence even though they were buried under about 10 feet of brick, mud, wood, and other debris.

People and technology from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory aid fictional astronaut Mark Watney during his epic survival story in "The Martian."
People and technology from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory aid fictional astronaut Mark Watney during his epic survival story in “The Martian.”

Improving accuracy of movies

In creating the film version of “The Martian,” producers turned to JPL for technical drawings and photos of Pathfinder, in order to accurately portray the historic spacecraft in the movie. The production team also visited JPL for research that would help them create a future version of the laboratory on film, down to the well-known informality of its culture. And cast member Jessica Chastain, who played Mars mission commander Melissa Lewis, visited JPL as part of the preparation for her role.

JPL has also assisted the nearby motion picture and television industries, by advising them about scientific accuracy in their productions. Science fiction shows advised by JPL include Babylon 5 and its sequel series, Crusade. Many other movies like Ad Astra and Europ Report have also got significant corrections and contributions from JPL engineers and scientists.

Spitzer Space Telescope
Spitzer Space Telescope

Curating knowledge from several sources

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope, which has been scanning the universe in infrared light since its 2003 launch. And JPL’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer space telescope, or WISE, found more than 100,000 previously unknown asteroids in the asteroid belt before shutting down in 2011.

JPL also serves as the home of NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Program, which coordinates observations of Earth-crossing asteroids and comets. Further, JPL managed flight project development for the Kepler space telescope, which has spotted thousands of potential alien planets. The lab handed control of Kepler’s science operations over to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., after Kepler’s March 2009 launch. Kepler is running low on fuel and is expected to cease operations in 2018.

JPL also designed, built, and operates NASA’s Deep Space Network, a system of antenna stations located in California’s Mojave Desert, Spain, and Australia. The DSN provides tracking for NASA and international missions to deep space, and it helps image planets and asteroids using radar. Data collected from the outskirts of the solar system streams back to the lab in California, leading some JPL folks to jokingly refer to it as “the center of the universe,” according to Jim McClure, who manages Mission Control.


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