- NASA’s staff is currently working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic — and this includes the team currently piloting the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.
- The team have had to come up with some creative solutions to overcome the problems of not working in a lab kitted out with computers, monitors, and specialized equipment.
- The team have managed to set things up well enough that Curiosity was able to complete a successful drilling mission while the team was working at home.
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Remote work doesn’t get much more remote than piloting a robot 140 million miles away on the surface of Mars.
NASA, alongside many other workplaces, has had to shut its doors during the coronavirus pandemic. For engineers and scientists working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) responsible for driving the Curiosity Mars rover, this meant setting up systems so they could continue to communicate with the rover while all stuck in their homes.
Business Insider spoke to two NASA employees currently on the rover team about how they are managing to execute commands and even make scientific advances while working from home.
The rover team successfully piloted the rover from home 6 days before NASA’s office closure
Alicia Allbaugh has worked on and off at NASA since 1991, and oversees the 75-person rover program which she has worked on since 2006. When she heard rumblings about the pandemic and potential lockdowns on NPR, she started to form a plan for if the rover team suddenly had to ship out. The rover team has had to think about some work-from-home plans in the past in case of earthquakes, Allbaugh said.
Luckily for the rover team, there was already some infrastructure in place because it works with scientists all over the world, so a degree of teleconferencing functionality was already on hand. They were able to do an experimental test run on March 12, five days before NASA shut its offices.
It took everyone a few hours to acclimatize to setting up all their windows and chats so they fit onto home monitor screens. “We figured it out within like two, three hours. We were sort of getting into the groove and understanding the ebb and flow and the pace,” she said. The test went off surprisingly well, with the rover receiving and successfully executing a set of orders.
Before NASA issued the order sending its employees home on March 17, Allbaugh had also gone into the office and done an inventory of all the spare monitors and headsets the team had on hand and what they would have to order in. When news did come that employees shouldn’t come back to work the next day, her team grabbed what they needed and headed home.
Recreating complex 3D goggles at home
The Curiosity rover is equipped with 3D cameras, which it uses to send 3D images back to its drivers to help work out where it should go next. Ordinarily the team look at these images with special high-tech 3D goggles which flip which eye is looking at the image at a rate of about 60 times per second.
“The reason we have them, in general, is because the Rover drivers need to visualize how the Rover moves over 3D train,” said Matt Gildner, the rover planner team lead.
Gildner oversees a team of about 20 planners who write and send commands telling the rover where to go. He added that the 3D images give the drivers a better idea of how steep a slope might be, or how sandy the ground might be.
But the goggles require heavy-duty graphics cards normally used in gaming computers, and it wasn’t going to be practical to get these working at home, so NASA found a less high-tech solution.
Rover planners are now using simple plastic red-blue glasses, the same kind you would use to watch a 3D movie. Gildner says he pops the glasses on for about 10 to 15 minutes at a time about three times a day to look around at where the rover is.
“It really helps us do our jobs. I mean, we couldn’t do it without it,” he said.
Double headsets help simulate the NASA office
The various groups that work on Curiosity are used to being in large rooms where they can easily talk to each other and convene amongst themselves, and simulating this kind of communication was a big challenge for the team.
Broadly speaking the work is split into uplink (what information NASA is sending the rover) and downlink (what information the rover is sending to NASA).
“The downlink area where they look at the data is similar to what you’ve seen in like ‘Apollo 13’ […] with little signs above everyone, and they’re looking at information from various systems on the vehicle,” Allbaugh said.
Uplink takes place on a different floor. “[Uplink is] mostly in one really large room that has a whole bunch of computers around the edge of it, and a very large table in the center with people on laptops usually as well,” Allbaugh added.
As a planner, Gildner works on the uplink side of the team and said it was a struggle to mimic this flow of communication. “We are used to being able to have everyone in one room and have some conversations that are within smaller groups in one room, and then some conversations that participate with everyone,” he said.
His solution: double headsets.
“What we’ve done is actually we set up multiple teleconferences all at once. I will have one headset called into my team of rover drivers and we’ll be chatting, and I’ll have that in one ear. And then I will be called into the larger teams group and have that in my second ear. And so I’m like muting myself in between two teleconferences at once and chatting back and forth and doing this for like eight hours a day,” he said.
“It does make you a bit more worn out, you have to concentrate a bit more. But it’s actually worked very well … we’re able to kind of mimic what we would be doing if we were all in one place in one conference room, or one operations room, trying to work with different teams,” he added.
Wearing his 3D glasses as well as his two headsets is what Gildner calls his “super nerd” look. “You’ve got to do both headsets at once too, because that’s really key to the whole look,” he said.
On March 20 a set of commands that were sent to Curiosity were successfully executed, and the robot drilled a rock sample at a location called “Edinburgh,” and is now headed on to yet another drilling operation looking for rocks to analyze. In total, the robot has rolled 166 metres (545 feet) since its human operators had to set up shop at home.
For Gildner, piloting the rover has taken on a special significance during lockdown. “One of the big draws of working on a spacecraft operation, especially on Mars, is that every day we’re driving to a new place and I get to look at images that no human has ever seen before,” he said.
“We all get to kind of escape on Mars for a few hours every week,” he added, pointing out that Curiosity’s photos are also uploaded for the public to see, should anyone else care to escape to Mars.