NASA’s Mars rover engineers face their new big challenge: Working from home

NASAs Mars Curiosity Rover takes a selfie in the middle of a massive storm. [Credit: Seán Doran/Flickr]

It’s no surprise that millions of people have been forced to leave their offices and work remotely and separated from coworkers amid the ongoing pandemic.

But what if your star coworker isn’t just in another state, but is on an entirely different planet? That’s what engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are having to contend with. Their golf cart-sized coworker is busy roving across the Martian surface.

NASA is used to sending commands to its spacecraft spread across the solar system, but they typically do so from control rooms at various agency centers and rely on their colleagues to troubleshoot and plan mission objectives. So when the Curiosity rover’s team was asked to stay home as part of an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, that team now had to manage hundreds of people along with a six-wheeled rover.

Curiosity captured this incredible panorama of Mars last November. Credit: NASA

Curiosity touched down on Mars in 2012, and ever since it has been busy exploring the red planet. But in order to carry out its objectives, the rover relies on a team of humans here on Earth to write computer code that will instruct the rover on how to carry out actions and conduct experiments on Mars.

“We’re usually all in one room, sharing screens, images, and data. People are talking in small groups and to each other from across the room,” Alicia Allbaugh, who leads the Curiosity team, said in a NASA blog post.

Now, instead of sharing screens, they’re managing multiple chats and video conference calls to pull off the same tasks they would in office. Typically it takes multiple people working together for the rover to be able to complete one task. For instance, it’s a coordinated effort between approximately 20 people to program Curiosity to drill into a Martian rock and analyze the sample collected.

To help them do their jobs, NASA equipped its employees with headsets, and other computer equipment, as well as provide 3D glasses that would allow the operators and scientists to view the 3D images the rover collects and beams back.

NASA had to equip the workers with headsets, monitors and other computer equipment to make sure their work-from-home setups were adequate.

The Mars Perseverance rover is almost ready for its July launch. Credit: NASA

Carrie Bridge leads Curiosity’s science operations and says that teleworking has had its challenges, but in typical NASA fashion, the team (and the agency) have risen to the challenge.

“It’s classic, textbook NASA,” she said. “We’re presented with a problem and we figure out how to make things work. Mars isn’t standing still for us; we’re still exploring.”

Curiosity’s companion, the Mars Perseverance rover is busy preparing for its upcoming flight to the red planet. The rover, basically a souped-up version of Curiosity, will launch this summer. If all goes as planned, it will touch down on the Martian surface in February 2021 where it will explore an ancient river bed in search of life.

Amy Thompson: I write about space, science, and future tech.
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