Piloting NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover From Dwelling

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Mission Team

Members of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover mission workforce photographed themselves on March 20, 2020, the primary day the whole mission workforce labored remotely from residence. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mars mission has discovered to satisfy new challenges whereas working remotely.

For people who find themselves capable of work remotely throughout this time of social distancing, video conferences and emails have helped bridge the hole. The identical holds true for the workforce behind NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. They’re coping with the identical challenges of so many distant employees — quieting the canine, sharing house with companions and household, remembering to step away from the desk infrequently — however with a twist: They’re working on Mars.

On March 20, 2020, no person on the workforce was current at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the place the mission relies. It was the primary time the rover’s operations had been deliberate whereas the workforce was utterly distant. Two days later, the instructions that they had despatched to Mars executed as anticipated, leading to Curiosity drilling a rock pattern at a location known as “Edinburgh.”

NASA Mars Rover Curiosity Sol 2711

This picture was taken by Proper Navigation Digicam onboard NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 2711. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The workforce started to anticipate the necessity to go totally distant a pair weeks earlier than, main them to rethink how they’d function. Headsets, displays and different tools had been distributed (picked up curbside, with all workers following correct social-distancing measures).

Not every little thing they’re used to working with at JPL may very well be despatched residence, nevertheless: Planners depend on 3D photos from Mars and normally examine them by particular goggles that quickly shift between left- and right-eye views to higher reveal the contours of the panorama. That helps them work out the place to drive Curiosity and the way far they’ll lengthen its robotic arm.

However these goggles require the superior graphics playing cards in high-performance computer systems at JPL (they’re really gaming computer systems repurposed for driving on Mars). To ensure that rover operators to view 3D photos on peculiar laptops, they’ve switched to easy red-blue 3D glasses. Though not as immersive or comfy because the goggles, they work simply as nicely for planning drives and arm actions.

The workforce ran by a number of checks and one full observe run earlier than it was time to plan the “Edinburgh” drilling operation.

What It Takes to Drive a Rover

After all, is just a part of the equation: Quite a lot of logistical changes are required as nicely. Usually, workforce members at JPL work with lots of of scientists at analysis establishments all over the world to determine the place to drive Curiosity and how one can collect its science. Working at a take away from these scientists is just not new. However working aside from different people who find themselves normally based mostly at JPL is.

Programming every sequence of actions for the rover could contain 20 or so individuals growing and testing instructions in a single place whereas chatting with dozens of others positioned elsewhere.

NASA Curiosity Mars Rover

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover reveals the automobile on the website from which it reached right down to drill right into a rock goal known as “Buckskin” on decrease Mount Sharp. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“We’re usually all in one room, sharing screens, images and data. People are talking in small groups and to each other from across the room,” stated Alicia Allbaugh, who leads the workforce.

Now they do the identical job by holding a number of video conferences directly whereas additionally relying extra on messaging apps. It takes further effort to verify all people understands each other; on common, every day’s planning takes one or two extra hours than it usually would. That provides some limits to what number of instructions are despatched every day. However for essentially the most half, Curiosity is as scientifically productive as ever.

To verify everyone seems to be being heard and understands each other, science operations workforce chief Carrie Bridge proactively talks to the scientists and engineers to shut any communication gaps: Does anybody see points with the present plan? Does the answer the engineers are converging round work for the scientists?

“I probably monitor about 15 chat channels at all times,” she stated. “You’re juggling more than you normally would.”

Usually, Bridge would make her rounds to a number of teams working in a form of state of affairs room the place Curiosity’s knowledge and pictures are seen and instructions are generated. Now she calls into as many as 4 separate videoconferences on the similar time to test in.

“I still do my normal routine, but virtually,” she stated.

The transition has taken getting used to, however Bridge stated the trouble to maintain Curiosity rolling is consultant of the can-do spirit that attracted her to NASA.

“It’s classic, textbook NASA,” she stated. “We’re presented with a problem and we figure out how to make things work. Mars isn’t standing still for us; we’re still exploring.”

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