How Scientists Communicate with Mars – The Martian

(Last Updated On: January 16, 2017)

Note from the ClassBrain – Cynthia Kirkeby

I was fortunate to be invited to a special event for The Martian at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Nick, the founder of SketchTogether,  joined me for the event, where we were treated with: a preview of this intriguing film, an opportunity to do one on one interviews, a walking tour of JPL, and a roundtable discussion with Matt Damon, Ridley Scott, the head of JPL, the author of the Martian – Andy Weir, and an astronaut.

Each of us attending an event of this type has a different takeaway, and for Nick, it was the following look at the challenges of communication for those who are headed into the frontiers of space. He ended up doing a secondary interview with JPL’s Dr. Larry Crumpler for this article, and he has been kind enough to share it with us on ClassBrain.

What ‘The Martian’ didn’t show you… How scientists communicate with Mars

Guest Post by Nicolas Mangano of SketchTogether

Imagine you had a teammate on Mars.

Now imagine you had to work with them on a daily basis.

You’ll have some unique challenges ahead of you. Not only would video conferences have a lag of between 3 and 22 minutes but with days being 36 minutes longer on Mars, your daily standup meetings would begin at a different time every day. That’s taking remote working to the next level.

For people on Earth who work with the Mars rovers, that’s life. We had a chance to talk with the people at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who themselves embrace the remote work culture with members that work together daily across the country.

The Martian interview by Nicolas Mangano

Photo from my seat (excuse the quality!) of the panelists at The Martian premiere (left to right: Astronaut Drew Feustel, Actor Matt Damon, author of “The Martian” book Andy Weir, Director Ridley Scott, NASA Director Jim Green).

A few weeks ago, the makers of SketchTogether were invited to the JPL labs, where we got the chance to watch an early screening of The Martian, starring Matt Damon (released yesterday). There we got an inside preview of how NASA scientists and engineers make the science happen in the real world.

The entire panel was spectacular (you can watch it here), but the part that stood out to me as a remote worker was the vision that NASA Director Jim Green laid out for how we’ll work with Mars. If everything goes their way, we’ll be working remotely with people on Mars in the next few decades.

After the panel, we got in contact with the people at JPL, and we were lucky enough to get an in-depth interview with someone who already works that reality, today, by working with the Mars rovers.

Interview with Larry Crumpler

When I reached out to the scientists at JPL for how they worked remotely, Dr. Larry Crumpler answered. He’s one of the amazing members of the MER (Mars Exploration Rover) science team, who are tasked with planning the day to day activities of the Mars Opportunity Rover since 2004. Dr. Crumpler, as well as the other scientists, work in a completely distributed fashion. All team members work from their respective offices across the country and meet daily during telecon conferences to discuss findings. Dr. Crumpler very kindly gave me an hour of his time to chat about how he and his fellow scientists and engineers work on a daily basis.

It’s amazing that you guys are collaborating from all over the world. How do you operate in a remote setting to plan the rover activities?

Yeah, that’s all by the simplest means possible. With internet related stuff—by email and internal websites that are actively maintained for the project where we can make reports and upload new maps or plans.

Everybody owns tactical duty for a given day. We check the content of our downlink, and engineers review the state of the spacecraft. There’s the flipside, which is the uplink, that we use to send our plans. We contextually analyze details and observations on a given downlink from the rover. When we’re doing planning, we’re doing regular telecons. An application that a lot of groups are using is WebEx, with which we share our screens to show what we’re running.

Opportunity Mars Rover - image courtesy of NASA

Opportunity Mars Rover – image courtesy of NASA

When people are participating in the meeting itself, do they work from their office? Or are there groups of people in a meeting room?

Yeah, the only large group of people are the engineers from JPL. The rest of us are pretty much in our own office by ourselves scattered across the country. We have a telecon and we’re done. That’s about it. We’re just voices on the telecon most of the time.

Everyone can pretty much pipe up when they want to. For the last 10 years, it’s been working well.

What does an average day look like?

Since the communication with the spacecraft is limited to only a couple of times a day—when we can get new data from the spacecraft downlink or send it data in an uplink—we can plan a schedule of when we can do things. We have a schedule for every day, for the next several months, including when meetings will be held, what Mars days we’re actually going to plan, start times for every meeting, and uplink times. That’s all planned way in advance.

Depending on the schedule, we might meet daily. We meet by WebEx, and have an agenda that we follow daily:

  • Role call: see who’s online.
  • Engineer assessment: Engineers report on the state of the rover, such as “power is such and such” and “we got this much downloaded”.
  • Science report: Start with a 10 to 20 slide PowerPoint. A report of what we [the scientists] tried to do yesterday, what we got back, what we need to do to continue the plan of the previous week. Talk about the long term science question that we’re trying to get at.
  • Plan time of next meeting: the time and date get written down.
  • Plan rover activity: Using an Excel spreadsheet, plan when the rover will wake up, when it will uplink its data, check how much power the rover will have to conduct experiments, and the limitations for the next day.
  • Plan rover experiments: Using an Excel spreadsheet, we [the scientists] will plan around the parameters given by the engineers. We basically have a tool called Maestro, where we drag in a variety of instruments that we have, volume requirements. “We’re going to take an image this way, do a microscopic image this way.” That all has to match within the parameters that the engineers give us. We do this every day, and it usually takes 30 minutes. We’ve done this 4,120 times [!].

Wow, so you guys meet every working day?

That’s the interesting part. We meet every day, but we’re on Mars time. That’s very expensive to do because people work very odd hours.

To read the rest of the article, please visit Nick’s blog at SketchTogether

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