What ‘The Martian’ didn't show you: how scientists communicate with Mars

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.

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 panel discussion at The Martian screening
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).

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

A picture of Dr. Larry Crumpler
Dr. 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.

The Opportunity Mars Rover
The Opportunity Mars Rover.

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. Communicating with the rover is on Mars time. Because of the time difference, with the Mars day being 36 minutes longer, we end up with a schedule that gets out of sync with Mars on a 2 week cycle. Today Earth days and Mars days are in sync, but in 2 weeks, when you get up, it’s 10PM on mars.

We get out of sync among ourselves, too, sometimes. What we end up doing is planning every other day. Most days we plan Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Every couple of weeks we get the data just before planning (5am), and we can plan the next day. Then we meet every day.

If you can see everything through Maestro, and someone wants to propose a route, how do you decide what route to take? Does someone propose it, and then people get together?

That’s an interesting question. A lot of times, the route we put down on the map ends up being where the rover goes. It gets kind of scary, because if you put a map out there… we’ll probably plan to send the rover there! It turns out, if you put a map of a crater to do a “walk about”, everyone wants to go there. When we plan routes, it always happens months in advance. Everyone is talking about what they’re trying to do. There’s a consensus that’s already built of where they’re trying to go.

It’s down to the details of the rover driver whether to go left or right around this rock. We’re trying to get to the spot around the rock. Sometimes we get to spots with the rover that we didn’t expect (i.e., this is interesting, we really need to look at this). We'll have that discussion, sometimes during the meeting. Every week we'll set aside a discussion called “the end of Sol” meeting.

Annotated map of a Mars crater
Every day, scientists like Dr. Crumpler annotate Mars maps like this one to plan the route for the Opportunity rover.

How detailed is the planning for the rover? Do the scientists just put waypoints and the rover figures it out on its own, or do you plan it in more detail?

Yeah, there’s several ways to do it. The rover engineers, the ones who set it up, have several ways to plan how the rover executes the drive from one way to another. It depends on the resources that they have. The rover can do it autonomously, but it takes a long time. It takes a lot of energy, and in some cases, where they can see the surrounding terrain in stereo, they can just tell the rover, “Hey, go to this spot!”. “Turn this number of degrees to this waypoint.”

Then there’s things where there’s lots of autonomy. It can get to a point where we can’t see anything from the cameras, so we “turn it loose” for X number of hours or minutes, and it usually will do pretty well on its own. So there’s a combination. In any case, it has a schedule that it adheres to for when it stops for uplinks, downlinks, and when it goes to sleep. Each of its instruments are all pretty much laid out by what they’re trying to accomplish.

3D render of the rover
The Maestro tool allows scientists to plan experiments around the rover.
3D render of the space in front of the rover
Scientists mark areas in front of the rover to explore and perform experiments.

How has it been, working directly with Mars?

Well, it’s been over 11 years since we’ve started this mission. When we landed, we didn’t know a lot about Mars. We’ve walked across Mars and seen the seasons, seen the sunrise and the sunset… you develop a strong sense that it’s a real place. It has a lot of similarity, in terms of principle, with the desert landscapes… You don’t feel… it’s no longer a far away place. You can visit it any time. Yeah, the lighting, the scale of things, the sense of how the rocks work. Every planet has a different sense of climate and history, timescale over which things happen. We have a good sense of that now [for Mars]. When we roll up into an outcrop, we already have a good sense about it before we even get there.

Here in New Mexico there’s a real connection with Mars. I want to say Mars is like New Mexico, just more so. It’s a high, thin, dry, clear, environment with temperatures that swing between hot and cold. There’s lot of dust in the spring, lots of erosion. Lots of things that melt things. Here we just have water that cuts through things, just like on Mars. Lots of volcanic rocks, dust. Very similar in a conceptual sort of way. Even though it doesn’t look like it, whenever people see a picture of Mars, they go, “wow, this looks like New Mexico.”

Conclusion

Working remotely across time zones is one interesting challenge, but working across planets… that’s tough to wrap our minds around. NASA's mission is to have many more of us facing these types of challenges in a few decades from now (or so we'd like to dream). Dr. Crumpler has been tackling these issues for more than 10 years, dealing with a particularly unempathetic team member on Mars. His story gives a preview of what it might be like for future interplanetary remote workers, and it brings the concept of "hard deadlines" to a whole other level. For those of us lucky enough to get to work with probes on other planets, that will always be a major challenge (still an easier one than trying to rescue a particular stranded astronaut on Mars).

For more information

If you’d like to read more about Dr. Crumpler’s work, you can read his field notes online. Dr. Crumpler has been working with the Curiosity rover since 2004, and works from his office at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

As a final food for thought for the interview, here’s a handy infographic from NASA to give you an idea of the scale of the length that the Opportunity rover has traveled:

Driving distances traveled on Mars and the moon
Driving distances traveled on Mars and the moon. Full size available here

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