'That NASA can-do spirit': Engineers keep Curiosity roving on Mars from home
'This was something — a pandemic — that we had never planned for,' says team chief Carrie Bridge
From the hallway that overlooks her backyard pool, Carrie Bridge coordinates the scientists and engineers who pilot the Curiosity Rover on its mission across Mars.
"I'm monitoring about five video conferences at the same time and around 15 chat channels, so it's a lot more intense," said Bridge, the science operations team chief for the Mars Science Laboratory project.
Like millions of workers around the world, Bridge and her colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., are working from home.
"We have the same challenges that everybody else does, [with] people coming in the background or the dogs barking and that sort of thing," she said.
Their work is anything but ordinary, though.
Since landing on the red planet in August 2012, Curiosity has rolled more than 22 kilometres, searching for any signs of life, past or present.
For each journey, Curiosity relies on a set of instructions that control where the rover drives and what tools it uses, which are coded and sent into space by engineers at JPL. Bridge typically coordinates the relaying of those instructions at the laboratory's command centre where engineers control the rover with high-powered hardware.
But with physical distancing measures, and a stay in place order across the state of California, Bridge and her team had to get creative in order to keep the mission going.
While NASA is known for having contingency plans, "this was something — a pandemic — that we had never planned for," Bridge told The Current's Matt Galloway.
"It was a little bit of a surprise for us, but the team kind of adopted that NASA can-do spirit and worked really hard to get the rover to be remotely operated."
Mission control at home
The Mars Rover team began working on their remote plans in early March, testing whether they could connect to internal systems from home and evaluating what equipment they would need.
"In January, we might have thought this isn't really possible because there's so much that happens locally in this one room," said Alicia Allbaugh who oversees the upload of information to Curiosity.
But the team quickly adapted, she added.
At NASA's laboratory, Curiosity's drivers are equipped with virtual headsets, powered by high-end computers that allow them to visualize the rover's place on Mars.
Unable to take that equipment home, engineers now use red and blue 3D glasses to help them navigate a planet hundreds of millions of kilometres away, from their dining rooms and home offices.
The command centre features dozens of screens, each with different information that offers engineers the ability to find information not available on their own screen with a quick swivel.
Now they have to manage multiple screens from their at-home workstations.
"I've had to multitask a lot more and learn to filter out because I'm listening to multiple conversations at the same time," Bridge said.
But perhaps trickiest of all is the limitation of communicating via instant messaging and telephone.
What used to be a shout across the room is a much more "purposeful" interaction while telecommuting, Allbaugh said.
That's added some planning time to their days, Bridge said.
"I would say that we're basically taking another one to two hours per day to make all the sequences and commands for a single sol [one Martian day] plan, for example."
'Explore no matter what's in our way'
Though the team is now getting accustomed to remote work, they made contingencies in the event piloting Curiosity from outside the laboratory became too difficult.
If fully remote rover control proved challenging, for example, the team planned to scale back their experiments on Mars. If it proved impossible, "Plan C" would have given Curiosity a vacation on Mars while its friends on Earth rode out the pandemic.
"We knew we had that as a backup plan, but again, [with] that sort of NASA can-do spirit, we wanted to tackle the problem and see if we could overcome it," Bridge said.
On March 20, during their first week of remote rover command, Bridge, Allbaugh and the JPL scientists and engineers successfully completed a planned dig on the Martian surface.
Curiosity extracted dust from a site called Edinburgh, and analyzed it inside its onboard instruments.
The mission "wasn't without issues," Allbaugh admitted, pointing to connectivity issues and the difficulty of communicating over video and phone conference. "But it went smoothly — remarkably smoothly," she added.
Bridge isn't surprised the mission has continued with its team at home.
"It speaks, I think, to the human spirit to push forward, and continue to help and explore no matter what's in in our way."
Written and produced by Jason Vermes.