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This is how NASA engineers control the Mars rover from the home office

Leader of the planning team, Matt Gildner, in the home office.

NASA / Matt Gildner

  • NASA employees are currently working from their home office because of the corona virus pandemic – including the team that controls the Curiosity Rover on Mars.
  • The team had to find some creative solutions because they lack the special equipment, computers and monitors with which they normally work in the laboratories.
  • Nevertheless, they managed to carry out a successful drilling mission with the Curiosity Rover from the home office.

A workplace can hardly be any further away: NASA employees control a robot on Mars at a distance of 228 million kilometers.

The corona virus pandemic is also forcing NASA to close its doors. For the engineers and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who are responsible for controlling the Curiosity Rover on Mars, this means that they had to set up themselves and their systems at home to continue working with the rover.

NewsABC.net spoke to two NASA employees who are currently part of the Rover team. They report on how they manage to execute commands and even make scientific progress while working from home.

Already five days before NASA’s closure, they managed to control the rover from home

Alicia Allbaugh has worked for NASA since 1991 and has been part of the Rover team since 2006. Allbaugh is now leading the rover program, which employs a total of 75 people. When she heard about a possible pandemic and curfew on the radio, she began to draw up an emergency plan for the rover team. Allbaugh said the team had had to think about plans for a home office situation in the event of an earthquake in the past.

Fortunately, there was some infrastructure already in place as the team works with scientists around the world. So there was a certain teleconferencing functionality anyway. On March 12, five days before NASA had to close its offices, they were able to run a test run.

First of all, it took everyone a few hours to get used to it. All windows and chats had to be set up to fit the screens at home. “We did it in about two or three hours. We somehow got going and got used to the new situation quickly, ”she says. The test went surprisingly well: the rover received a series of commands and successfully executed them.

This is what Alicia Allbaugh's workplace at home looks like.

This is what Alicia Allbaugh’s workplace at home looks like.

Alicia Allbaugh / NASA

Before NASA sent its employees home on March 17, Allbaugh had taken stock of all replacement monitors and headsets. So she knew what was in stock and what they had to order. When the news came that the employees should not come to work the next day, their team grabbed what they needed and headed home.

Recognize complex 3D glasses at home

The Curiosity Rover is equipped with 3D cameras with which it sends 3D images from Mars back to its drivers. This allows them to plan where to go next. Usually, the team looks at these pictures with special high-tech 3D glasses that change about 60 times per second, which eye is currently looking at the picture.

This image, compiled from a series of photos from June 15, 2018, shows a self-portrait of the Curiosity Rover in the Gale Crater on Mars.

This image, compiled from a series of photos from June 15, 2018, shows a self-portrait of the Curiosity Rover in the Gale Crater on Mars.

NASA / JPL-Caltech via AP

“We mainly use these glasses so that the rover drivers can visualize how the rover moves on the three-dimensional level,” says Matt Gildner, head of the planning team.

Gildner coordinates a team of around 20 planners who write and send commands to the rover and thus control it. He added that the 3D images give drivers a better idea of ​​how steep a slope or how sandy the ground could be.

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But the glasses require high-performance graphics cards that are typically used on gaming PCs. However, it wouldn’t make sense to get them running at home. So NASA found a less high-tech solution.

The rover planners are now using simple red and blue plastic glasses, which are also used for 3D films in the cinema. Gildner says he puts on the glasses about three times a day for about 10 to 15 minutes and checks where the rover is. “It really helps us in our work. It wouldn’t be possible without them, ”he said.

Two headsets help simulate the NASA office

The various groups working on the curiosity are used to staying in large rooms. This makes it easier for them to communicate with each other and meet. Simulating this type of communication was a huge challenge for the team.

Broadly speaking, the rover team’s work is divided into uplink (NASA sends information to the rover) and downlink (the rover sends information to NASA).

“You can imagine the downlink area in which the data is evaluated, similar to ‘Apollo 13’ […] Small signs can be seen everywhere and the employees look at information from various systems of the rover, ”says Allbaugh.

The uplink area is on a different floor. “[Uplink findet] mostly in a really big room. There’s a whole bunch of computers there, and in the middle is a very large table that usually has a lot of people with laptops, ”added Allbaugh.

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Gildner works as a planner for the uplink team. Imitating your usual communication was a huge challenge, said Gildner. “We are used to everyone being in one room. Often some conversations take place at the same time. We have small group discussions in one room and those in which everyone participates, ”he says.

His solution: two headsets.

“In order to imitate our usual way of working, we actually set up several conference calls, some of which run simultaneously. With a headset, I am connected to my team of rover drivers. I hear and have conversations with them in one ear. In the second ear, I take part in larger group conferences. I alternately mute between the two conference calls and take turns taking part in the calls. And about eight hours a day, ”he said.

NASA staff at JPL celebrate the landing of the Curiosity Rover on August 5, 2012.

NASA staff at JPL celebrate the landing of the Curiosity Rover on August 5, 2012.

Brian van der Brug-Pool / Getty Images

“It is of course also very tiring, because it requires a little more concentration. But it actually works very well … we are, in a way, able to imitate that we are all in one place and in a conference room or an operations center and that we work with different teams, ”he adds.

Equipped with 3D glasses and two headsets: this is what Gildner calls his “super nerd look”. “You really have to use both headsets at the same time, because that’s the key to the look,” he says.

“We can all flee to Mars for a few hours every week”

On March 20, the Curiosity Rover successfully executed a number of commands sent. The robot performed a drilling mission that collected a rock sample at a location called “Edinburgh”. Now the rover is on the way to another drilling process in which even more rock is to be analyzed. The robot has traveled a total of 166 meters since the drivers had to set up at home.

Steering the rover during lockdown is particularly important to Gildner. “One of the attractions of working with a spacecraft, especially on Mars, is that we go to a new place every day and I can see pictures that no one has ever seen before,” he says.

“We can all flee to Mars for a few hours every week,” he adds. He pointed out that the photos of the Curiosity Rover are also open to the public so that everyone else can see them – in case you want to flee to Mars for a short time.

This article has been translated and edited by Ilona Tomić from English. You can read the original here.

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