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Diary of a Mars operations day

Updated Wednesday, 14th April 2021

Dr Susanne P. Schwenzer outlines a day in the life of the operations team for the Mars rover, Curiosity.

It’s the 8th of February, and I wake up at the usual time in the morning. Snow has fallen overnight, and there are reports of disruptions from further north, but here in Milton Keynes it all just looks like a little bit of powdered sugar decorating the world out there – and covering the first tips of the snowdrops that were brave enough to come above ground a few days ago. But before I can get too romantic about it all, I’d better start thinking about my workday. It’s Monday after all. I remember that I have a few meetings first thing today. The day starts with some admin and a meeting to talk about all the things we do here at AstrobiologyOU, which is then followed by a training session for our early career researchers. I love those, because it was more senior colleagues taking time for me when I was beginning my career that got me to where I am today... including to Mars!

Right after a late lunch, though, my favourite part of the week starts, as I am on the operations team for today’s rover planning – rover, which rover? The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. Here she is, in one of my favourite selfies, at the Mary Anning location (on Mars!):

Curiosity at Mary Anning, Gale Crater Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: NASA/JPL

Image: Curiosity at Mary Anning, Gale Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL; you can find the original image and some background information here

I start by logging in to all the systems I will need for the rest of the day. Most things are browser-based, but still, lots of passwords and authentication needed, as you would expect. After remembering all my passwords, I begin looking at the new images. It never gets old to see the latest images and to study the new landscape where the rover is parked – a landscape that is over 4 billion years old and has just been imaged for the very first time. The images I am looking at have been taken just under 34 million miles away on another planet by a robotic spacecraft that executed our commands, then sent the data to an orbiter, which sent them to the deep space network, which sent them to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where they get to the servers on which I can view them. Being able to do so a few hours after the rover took them is pretty amazing, but even more amazing to me is that we can investigate another planet this way.

I look at the images, think about the rocks I see, their structures and what would be the best area to investigate. But my very favourite image from the latest downlink – as we call it when data arrive from Mars on Earth – is one that shows the rover hardware. The rover’s arm instruments are in action at our last parking spot, I think it is taken at the target Sarrazec. My colleague Melissa Rice has summarised the activities of that sol in the MSL blog. If you want to enjoy viewing the latest images, too, you can always look here.

Curiosity rover - The left navigation camera looks down on the arm while it operates in the workspace. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image: The left navigation camera looks down on the arm while it operates in the workspace. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The team I will be working with today has a clear structure. First there are two parts of the team, the engineers and the scientists. The engineers keep the rover safe, watch over its health and put together all the sequences that make the rover measure and image the targets that we scientists pick out as interesting and of scientific importance. I am a mineralogist by training, and thus I am part of the science team, more specifically, the science team that looks at the geology and mineralogy investigations that the rover carries out. Our science team again has a clear structure. There are members taking care of the long-term planning, who regularly compare the science goals of our mission with the investigations that we have already done and with everything we know about the terrain ahead of us, to work out strategic guidelines on what we want to do in the next few weeks. A colleague from this team will provide an update on strategic guidance for our decisions during planning. This is important, because there are so many details to take care of on the day that the strategic guidance works like the beam of a lighthouse: it provides a point of orientation. The other part of the team is the tactical team; my role belongs to this part of the team, and we are looking at the day-to-day rover operations. Today, I am filling the role of Science Theme Lead for the geology and mineralogy group.

Planning starts at 4.15 pm my time, so, I am in for a long day. 4.15 pm in the UK is 8.15 am for the colleagues at JPL in Pasadena, US, where the main control centre is. I log in to our conferencing system about ten minutes ahead of time and test my speakers and microphone. Then I wait until it is exactly 4.15 pm. I take a deep breath, focus, unmute my microphone and greet the team. For the next hour and a half, it will be my role to know what is happening in at least three parallel strands of activity, and who is at what point in the planning process, so I can answer questions that might come in from other parts of the wider team, and keep everything to time, too. Of course, I also bring my expertise in mineralogy and geology to the decision-making that we will do today. Conversations happen within the virtual conference room, a separate chat and occasionally on email, too. There is a lot to keep track of, so I’d better be focused!

I start with a roll call, which means calling each role within the team to see who is online working this role today. We need a representative of ChemCam, Mastcam, APXS, MAHLI and MARDI for the planning (if you want to know more about those instruments, here are all the details), as well as our chair and a long-term planner. Once I know that there is someone online for every role we need, planning can start. This is the geology and mineralogy part of the tactical team, and we will spend the first part of the planning day assessing the new workspace and putting together our part of the plan.

For this, we first look at the images of the location where the rover is parked. Today, those are all new, as the rover has done a drive at the end of the last plan. After a drive, one of our questions for the engineers is whether the rover is parked safely (we are driving off-road, remember, so Mars can have some surprises for us!). She confirmed that Curiosity is parked safely and that we therefore can use the arm – which carries the APXS and MAHLI instruments. Next, we hear the strategic guidance from our long-term planner, and the engineers let us know that the rover is in good shape. Now we can start to get to the details.

Today the rover is parked in an area that has a lot of broken-up rock surface – it’s rubbly, as we call it. The workspace has several rocks and some sand, and the rocks require close inspection. We discuss what we can see and where best to do our investigations. Those discussions are important because our resources are limited. We can pick one or two of those rocks for closer inspection, thus we spend some time discussing. We point out structures and colour changes to each other and develop a hierarchy of what is most important – always keeping an eye on the strategic guidance we have from the long-term planner. Once we have settled on the best option, we let the engineers know what our preferred target for the APXS investigation is. They will then use their tools to make sure the rover arm can approach safely.

individual rocks on Mars Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: NASA/JPL

Image: This is an example of what we have today: lots of individual rocks, and if you look very closely, you can make out structures in them, especially in those where you can see the side. Image credit NASA/JPL, the original image.

Today we plan Curiosity’s activities for one sol – that’s one Martian day. Therefore, it is one of the easier days here on Earth. If we plan more than one sol, the effort that needs to fit into the time easily doubles or triples. Take a close look at the image above. Try to follow the layers – we call them lamination – around the rocks. If you zoom in, you might see that some are slightly thicker than others, and you might see very bright white as well. Sometimes that follows the lamination, sometimes it cross-cuts it. From previous investigations – and mineralogical experience – we know that the white mineral is calcium sulfate, also known as gypsum. Have a look at the sand too – do you see the ripples? Looking at all those details is important for our decision-making.

Once we have made all our decisions and know what activities APXS, ChemCam and Mastcam want to do, each of the instrument teams assembles the commands required for our plan. While my colleagues are busy thinking about commands, angles, distances and other details, I have a moment to collect my thoughts for writing my report. Part of my role is to document the discussions we had earlier and preserve for the future why we are investigating the targets that we have selected. Thus, I spend the next ten minutes thinking back to the discussions we had, and making notes of all the reasons why we have chosen the targets.

Then there comes a fun part: naming our targets. For this, we have a list of names to pick from. Currently, those are all French. That is because Gale crater has been mapped before landing, and for this it has been divided into quadrangles. Each quadrangle has a name – the one we are currently driving through is called Nontron. And because Nontron is in France, all names in the Nontron quadrangle are French geographic names. And since my French is very, very poor, a kind French colleague patiently teaches me how to pronounce today’s names! As chance would have it, he is from the region today’s names are from, so I am learning them in the local dialect. Once all targets have names (and we all know how to pronounce them), we put our plan together, making sure all the little details are correct. This is led by our ‘keeper of the plan’. She shares her screen through the conferencing system, so we all see what is happening. Then every instrument team works with her to get all the details entered into the system. My task is to monitor all communication channels, to remember if we have asked everyone for their input, and to moderate the session. Once all the details are in the plan, I end the session with another roll call, this time asking if every member of the planning team is happy with the plan as it currently is in the system. They all respond with ‘go!’ when they find their plan in good order. I am sure you remember those calls from the Apollo movies! We really do them! It is the best and most unambiguous way to make sure everything is ready for the next stage of our planning. After hearing six loud and clear ‘go’ calls, I announce that I am ‘go’ and the plan is transferred to the next team. I thank my colleagues for their work and close the conferencing system. That was step one of three.

Now I have 30 minutes to get some dinner. Since the night will be long, I make sure to take a lot of snacks with me to my desk! While I do this, the engineers are very focused on integrating all the parts that have been assembled into one big plan – the one that will eventually be sent to the rover. Besides the plan that the geology team put together, there is the atmospheric investigation, a drive, an arm movement, and of course data transfers and some engineering activities to keep the rover healthy and happy. We will look at all this as soon as it is put together. Part two starts in a few minutes. I log in to the conferencing system and wait for the science operations group leader to call my role. It’s my turn to announce my presence, and for the rest of the session watch proceedings closely so I can answer any questions that might come my way. It is a quiet and easy day, so I have some time to write the first part of my report in parallel. The session ends with a roll call – as all sessions do. This plan will then get checked again – and sent to Curiosity. And while I will be busy with other things tomorrow here on Earth, on Mars Curiosity will execute this plan.  

After another 30-minute break, the third – and for me final – part of the day starts: we are pre-planning the next sol. This is the preparation for tomorrow’s planning and makes it a lot easier for the incoming team. This time, the long-term planner is leading, and asks for all our presence. He then gives a short presentation about the things we have achieved, the strategic guidance and what is planned for the next few sols. We have just planned the 3026th sol on Mars. He is showing a map with the rover path, with parts of Curiosity’s 15 mile drive on Mars – 15 miles off road driving, over 250000 images, and all the chemical and mineralogical information that we need to understand the geology of the area, to learn that there was a lake in the crater that dried out about 4 billion years ago. But I cannot let my thoughts wander too much, I need to pay attention.

We transition to the presentation of the plan for sol 3027. I take notes, because I will need to add this information to my report, handing it over to the next team. Once we have discussed the overall plan for sol 3027, it is my turn to lead the pre-planning in preparation for tomorrow’s team. I have the same team as for part one in the virtual room and we think about the possibilities the team might have tomorrow. The rover is going to drive, so we cannot be exactly sure what will be in front of it, but we try to anticipate the options and help the next team as much as possible. For this we have images that are looking into the distance, we have the maps from orbit – and of course we have our experience. The keeper of the plan assembles a set of rover activities, which tomorrow’s team can change as they see fit once they know the exact parking position of the rover. I finish with one last roll call. It’s good to hear the energy when they all give me their ‘go’. There’s a round of thank-yous, and I log out of the virtual room. Now, I need to finish my report and pass on all the details of today’s planning to the next team.

It’s 8.30 pm now – an early finish compared to some other planning days. I proof-read my report and upload it, and I have one more task to do: send off the MSL blog, which summarises today’s planning for the MSL website. All done for the day. It was a fun day, not very stressful (sometimes we have those days too). The area the rover is in right now is interesting. We are looking for changes in chemistry that we expect from the maps we have. Orbital images help us a lot in knowing what might be ahead. Looking from the ground will add all the details to that picture. I am excited about the area, especially from a mineralogical point of view. We call the next unit ahead ‘sulfate bearing unit’ on our maps. That sounds like alteration minerals and, most importantly, water activity. I am intrigued, and we are getting there, one drive at a time!

The proposed route for NASA's Curiosity rover, which is climbing lower Mount Sharp on Mars. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: NASA/JPL

Image: This animation shows the path of the rover, we are currently near the transition between green and the yellow units on the map. If you want to know where exactly the rover is, you can follow it here. Image credit: NASA/JPL, the image and some background information is here

I shut down my computer, walk downstairs, step out into my garden. Snowflakes are dancing in the ice-cold air. I look up and try to see the Moon, but that hides behind clouds. In just a few hours, the United Emirates’ Hope orbiter will arrive at Mars, and then China’s Tjanwen-1 mission, and on the 18th of February it’s time for Perseverance to land at Jezero crater. It is an amazing time we live in, and I feel so fortunate to have the honour to play my tiny, tiny part in the exploration of Mars. It never stops fascinating me that humankind has travelled to the Moon, that we have samples from the Moon – and hopefully soon from Mars – and that we can operate complex instruments on another planet to find out about its geologic history, the fate of its water, and the environments that it hosted 4 billion years ago. As I walk back into the warmth of my house, I think about the fact that we soon may have three active rovers and an active lander on Mars – at the same time. And what they might find… 

Banner image credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS; processings and mosaic: Olivier de Goursac (fr), 2014, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This article is part of the Astrobiology Collection on OpenLearn. This collection of free articles, interactives, videos and courses provides insights into research that investigates the possibilities of life beyond the Earth and the ethical and governance implications of this.

 

 

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