Winter is definitely here. Last week’s Winter Solstice marked the turning point of the season, when the days are getting longer and the nights shorter. A few seconds at first, then a minute or two, and then we can finally see the difference - until Daylight Saving Time kicks in and ruins it all with widespread sleep-deprivation.
On Mars, meanwhile, it’s summertime! That’s a relative term, of course, because a summer on Mars is WAY colder than a winter in Milledgeville. Check out https://mars.nasa.gov for the daily weather report for Mars: with a high of around -2F and lows in the neighborhood of -108F it’s not exactly beach, backyard and barbecue time on our planetary neighbor.
It’s a good thing that our roving Mars scientist Curiosity is fairly unfazed by those temperature swings; its thermonuclear power source is keeping it cozy and happy during those wild temperature extremes.
But what exactly does it take to keep this rover active?
Dr. Sarah Milkovich, currently the Investigation Scientist for the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the Science Operations Development Lead for the upcoming 2020 Mars Rover mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL – Home Base of Yours Truly), knows all about the complicated daily routine and the gargantuan task of keeping the science team and the engineering team in communication. While the engineering team is primarily concerned with the hardware of the rover itself, the science team is in charge of what the rover actually does on Mars. Those two objectives rarely overlap. The engineers want to keep the vehicle safe and take as few risks as possible, and the science folks have to take risks in order to meet their science goals.
In addition, there is the small but vital matter of day length. Here on Earth a day is right around 24 hours long, on Mars it’s 24 hours and 40 minutes. While at certain times the Mars team operates on Mars time, it’s not sustainable in the long run. Imagine your timeline shifting by 40 minutes every day – within 2 weeks you’re completely out of synch with the rest of your environment (which of course still chugs along in 24 hour long days). The result is a permanent case of jet lag that you can never catch up with. If the rover teams stayed in Earth’s timeline, they’d miss entire weeks of Mars science, because you can’t just have a conversation with the rover whenever you please: it needs to either face towards the Earth or an orbiter has to be overhead to relay the data.
You can imagine the logistical nightmare this situation creates.
Milkovich coordinates the two timelines, to where the Earth teams run a very long shift, from 6am though 10pm, so there is at least some part of communication windows overlap. While the Mars 2020 Rover is still a good while away from going anywhere, the logistics must be worked out way ahead of time. However, her position with the MRO team has her in the midst of those planning meetings, which makes her uniquely qualified for Mars 2020.
The day begins with a package of instructions sent from Earth directly to the rover, via the Deep Space Network (DSN). The rover carries out those instructions as listed. During the day some of the data it collects is sent to MRO as it passes overhead, which in turn relays it to Earth. While the rover can keep working at night it does have to stop at some point and recharge its batteries from its power source. Early in the morning the rover communicates with MRO again and data packages are exchanged. Meanwhile on Earth the science and engineering teams review the downlinked information and debate the best course of action on where the rover should go next and what it should do. While the general path is outlined well before the mission begins the exact operations are parceled out in monthly, weekly and daily objectives. Science goals and engineering concerns must be carefully balanced until everyone is (more or less) happy.
And yes, the final vote is a “go/ no go” call around the room, just like in the movies! The data packages get tested repeatedly before they are finally sent to the rover; nobody wants to send a corrupt file up there and wreck the whole mission.
It takes a global village to run this amazing machine: hundreds of engineers and scientists from 11 different countries must work together and produce useful results within strict time limits – lollygaggers need not apply! It’s a high-pressure environment but everyone shares the common goal of exploring Mars. Teamwork, collaboration, negotiation skills and nerves of steel are basic requirements. Rest assured: with highly capable people like Dr. Milkovich, our Mars Exploration Program is in good hands!
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org