Workers around the world are adapting to new practices, as the COVID-19 pandemic shutters offices and other working environments – the same goes for space exploration.
Scientists and engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have kept the agency’s Mars Curiosity rover rolling from home, despite the virus outbreak.
NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has been roaming the red planet since 2012.
But in March earlier this year, a spanner was put into the works of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – the COVID-19 pandemic.
JPL team members have been embracing remote operations, social distancing and video conferencing, just like millions of workers around the world.
NASA says nobody was present at JPL, the mission’s base, on 20 March. For the first time ever, operations were planned by an entirely remote team.
Two days later, commands sent to the rover were executed as expected – Curiosity drilled a Martian rock sample.
NASA says it began to anticipate the need to move to remote working practices a couple of weeks earlier – headsets, monitors and other equipment were delivered to workers.
“I never really imagined that we could be doing rover operations from home, all split up and not centralized in one place,” says JPL systems engineer Ashley Stroupe, who’s working from home in Virginia.
“We do rely a lot on being able to communicate with each other and share what we’re doing and sort of checking in with all of the different roles. And so, when we first started talking about trying to put this together, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work.”
Stroupe works in rover operations at JPL, one of the most “tight-knit” groups, she says.
Programming each sequence of rover actions can involve about 20 people developing and testing commands, while speaking with dozens elsewhere.
Technology has helped bridge the gap, with video conferencing and online messaging. But, like many workers around the world, Stroupe says she still misses the personal contact.
“Usually we have anywhere from two to four people doing that on a given day, and we’re all sitting right next to each other in the corner,” she explains.
“We can look at each other’s screens, we can talk directly to each other and talk through and try to work out any questions or concerns that we may have. And that proximity really is a benefit, but we have managed to replicate that mostly on a separate teleconference line. But we do really miss the personal contact, that I think is the hardest.”
Stony Brook University professor Scott McLennan is a participating scientist on the mission, working with Curiosity from Oxford, UK, where he’s on a visiting fellowship.
“It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I think we’re all just dumbfounded by how much progress we made so quickly,” he says.
McLennan says it has been less disruptive to the mission’s science team, who are based all around the world anyway.
But working on California time does mean starting at 4pm in the UK and finishing well past 10pm.
Scientific plans are made on long, crowded video conferencing calls, rather than face-to-face.
“We just have a whole group of scientists in that group figuring out what the plan is,” explains McLennan.
“They’re looking at the images that have come down the night before. They’re trying to figure out what rocks are of most interest, what kind of work we might be able to do on them, whether we just want to take pictures, whether we want to do remote science, or whether we want to actually do what’s called contact science, where we put the arm out onto the surface and make measurements that way.”
But NASA says its scientists are dealing with the same challenges of many remote workers – quieting the dog, sharing space with family, and coping with unreliable internet connections.
“Some people’s home network wi-fi bandwidth can be a limiter, if we don’t quite have enough bandwidth to do, especially when we’re looking at the images and the 3D animations of the drives and the contact science targets, that’s pretty heavy graphics,” explains Stroupe.
“And so, sometimes it can get a little slow just from transferring it over the network. And because everyone’s at home now, the networks are being taxed even more than they normally would be.”
NASA sent its Curiosity rover to the red planet in 2011, successfully landing in August 2012.
The primary goal of the $2.5 billion mission is to see whether Mars might once have been hospitable for microbial life – or might even still be conducive to life.
No actual life detectors are on board. The instruments hunt for organic compounds.
The one-ton rover is about ten feet long and nine feet wide and is a mobile, nuclear-powered laboratory holding ten scientific instruments that have been sampling Martian soil and rocks.
It also has a drill and a stone-zapping laser.