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Some of the people on teams managing the rovers on Mars call themselves “Rover drivers” or “Mars drivers.” Of course, things are not that simple. It is not possible to drive a vehicle on Mars in real-time from Earth. Instead, computer code must be uploaded to enable the vehicle to carry out planned manoeuvres, analyses, etc., autonomously.  And the computer code can only be written after the results of the previous commands are known.

In practice, this involves large teams of engineers, software experts and scientists. Each team has their own work – and the teams need to interact to plan the rover’s work, iron out priorities, and deal with problems. This work has to occur at strange times, and with deadlines, to fit in with the activity and day/night programme on Mars. Energy limitations means that the rover usually does not operate during the Martial day.

So all this work, the meetings of each team and their joint meetings, and decisions about planned activity must take place before the rover “wakes up.” And because the results from the previous day’s activities feed into this detailed decision cannot be made and code written until after that data has been downloaded and analysed.

The graphic above was shown in one of the recent Mars Science Laboratory – Curiosity – media briefings. It indicates the time line for the Laboratory to be active (“awake”), the downloading of data via the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters, assessment of data, planning of future activity (particularly that for the next day), interaction of engineering, scientific and software teams, integration of plans, validation and approval and then the sending of the new commands to Curiosity as it “wakes up” for the new day.

I note they have even left a brief time gap “margin” to handle unforeseen problems.

It must be fascinating to work in large teams like this on scientific projects. And I am sure there are also political and emotional problems that need management as well as the engineering, scientific and software problems. Apparently with groups managing Mars rovers the shift-work, and the drift in shift times because of mismatch in the length of the Earth day and the Mars sol, causes “jet lag.” So the emotional and human issues resulting from this also need management.

Andrew Kessler gives an idea of the procedures involved in managing Mars rovers and landers in his book Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission. This is based on his own experiences as a journalist embedded in the teams managing the recent Phoenix lander. It’s a bit of an eye-opener – at least for someone who hasn’t worked in such large scientific teams before.

See Working on Mars for my review of that book.

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