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NASA scientists are controlling the Mars Curiosity rover from home amid C19 outbreak

by Evelyn Arevalo April 19, 2020

NASA scientists are controlling the Mars Curiosity rover from home amid C19 outbreak

Featured Image Source: NASA

NASA asked almost all of its 17,000 employees to work from home in mid-March after several workers tested positive for COVID-19 [C19], the respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus strain. Governors from across the United States issued ‘stay-at-home’ orders as the coronavirus outbreak rapidly swept the nation. NASA shared this week how scientists and engineers work from home to control the Curiosity rover on Mars! The Curiosity team usually works from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, now, teams have been working remotely communicating with each other via video chat. Teams picked up their equipment at NASA, including headsets, monitors and other hardware “were picked up curbside, with all employees following proper social-distancing measures,” the agency stated.

Though, not every equipment can be used from home. To view 3D landscapes from Mars, researchers require special goggles, NASA explains: “Planners rely on 3D images from Mars and usually study them through special goggles that rapidly shift between left- and right-eye views to better reveal the contours of the landscape. That helps them figure out where to drive Curiosity and how far they can extend its robotic arm.” But those special 3D goggles utilize an advanced computer at JPL, that has a high capacity graphic card.  To work from home, researchers had to improvise and use regular red-blue 3D glasses to view the Martian terrain.

Curiosity teams were tasked to drill on Mars’ surface with the rover's robotic arm. They drilled a rock sample at a location called “Edinburgh.” Alicia Allbaugh, who leads the Curiosity team, said, “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.” Working on Mars Curiosity missions requires a team of dozens of scientists and engineers sharing data in the same room, including writing code to control the robot rover’s actions as it travels the planet’s rough terrain. At least 20 software engineers could be needed during a mission and hundreds of scientists from across the world decide where JPL sends the rover to research Martian land. Now, they are all having video conferences from home, doing extraordinary out-of-this-world research. NASA details in a press release, “It takes extra effort to make sure everybody understands one another; on average, each day's planning takes one or two more hours than it normally would. That adds some limits to how many commands are sent each day. But for the most part, Curiosity is as scientifically productive as ever.”

CheMin Instrument. Source: NASA

SAM Tool. Source: NASA

To drill, Curiosity assesses the soil for drilling. As they send commands to the drill instrument, they extract a sample from the rock to process and identify the sample. Then the sample is delivered to the Chemical and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, it “performs chemical analysis of powdered rock samples to identify the types and amounts of different minerals that are present.” Researchers then send operation signals to prepare the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) tool located at the top of Curiosity (pictured above). “SAM is made up of three different instruments that search for and measure organic chemicals and light elements that are important ingredients potentially associated with life.” Then, the sample is delivered to SAM for analysis. When analysis is complete the sample is dumped to the ground. This research takes place over several weeks. Curiosity rover operators work alongside NASA planetary geologists to analyze all data. 

Edinburg drill site on Mars. Source: NASA 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, NASA teams are still passionate about exploring space. "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," the science operations team chief Carrie Bridge said, "I probably monitor about 15 chat channels at all times. You're juggling more than you normally would. I still do my normal routine, but virtually.” The teams were successful at conducting the Edinburg drilling operation and continue to research the Red Planet’s surface from home.

 




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