NASA Scientists Now Have to Explore Mars From Their Own Homes

"Selfie" taken by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity before continuing its drive up the slopes of Mount Sharp. Meanwhile, Curiosity's operators on Earth are all working remotely from home, giving a new meaning to the phrase.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

On Mars, nothing has changed for the rover Curiosity because of the coronavirus pandemic. It continues its exploration up the slopes of Mount Sharp.

Curiosity drives where it's told, stopping to take a picture or extend its robotic arm to drill into a rock. Under no shelter-at-home order, it's business as usual for the rover.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the room where Curiosity's route is normally planned — by a team of scientists and engineers — stands empty.

Skeleton Crew, Ghost Staff

Due to the shelter-in-place and social distancing directives, the normally bustling 117-acre campus of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California, where Curiosity is operated from, has become something of a ghost town.

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The usual population of over 5,000 employees has been reduced to a skeleton crew of only a couple hundred performing essential functions that cannot be done remotely. Those who must come to the lab are all practicing social distancing, proper sanitization and wear personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Most of JPL's mission operators and other personnel, including the Curiosity rover team, are adapting to doing their jobs remotely from home. So, how does interplanetary exploration work from home —where cats walk across keyboards, kids attend school by Zoom and the dog needs to be walked?

Exploring Another World— From Home

Curiosity rover driver Keri Bean studies the terrain around the rover using red-blue 3D glasses, an adaptation to operating Curiosity from home without access to higher-tech equipment. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As the novel coronavirus began to hit countries around the globe, the Curiosity team predicted the need to carry on with rover operations remotely, and outfitted home offices for video conferencing. The team had to make sure it could stay in close contact to analyze data and imagery from the rover to map its surroundings in detail and plot its movement.

They had to adapt, and got creative. Without the high graphics computing and special equipment at JPL, at-home rover operators are using old theater-style 3D glasses to study the terrain and plan Curiosity's work.

One such maneuver took place on March 20, when operators commanded Curiosity’s drill to bore into a block of sandstone at a site dubbed “Edinburgh” to extract a rock sample for analysis. Not only was the operation a success, it was also the first time the drill had been used to dig into rock since 2018, when a technical problem forced engineers to devise a new method of drilling.

Curiosity is on the move again, after a pit stop to diagnose an issue with its Mars Hand Lens Imager instrument. No time was wasted: The team directed Curiosity to collect images of the surrounding terrain and atmospheric data while it waited.

Impacts on Other Missions

In addition to Curiosity on Mars, JPL currently manages 20 different missions. All of them are impacted by the pandemic.

Artist concept of the Europa Clipper spacecraft making a flyby of Jupiter's icy, ocean-harboring moon, Europa. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

One of these is Europa Clipper, a mission to send a spacecraft to Jupiter to investigate the ocean beneath the icy crust of the moon Europa. The Clipper team now works almost completely from home.

"The Europa Clipper team was already partly remote, since Clipper is a partnership between APL and JPL," said Krys Blackwood, senior lead human centered designer at JPL. "So, we adapted to working from home fairly rapidly. Luckily, the leadership of the mission is incredibly supportive, working to accommodate people's unique home and family situations. I find myself looking forward to all those moments when someone's kids or pets pop into a video conference. Rather than letting it disrupt us, we roll with it and support each other."

Another critical program at JPL is running NASA's Deep Space Network, or DSN. That's the global array of large radio dishes that keeps mission operators in contact with robotic missions across the solar system — including the veteran Voyager probes that are now traveling through interstellar space.

Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, nexus of NASA's Deep Space Network for communicating with robotic missions across the solar system. (Ben Burress)

"Our research for Deep Space Network operations is definitely impacted," said Blackwood of her Human Centered Design Group team, "as we mostly need to be face-to-face in order to measure and evaluate operational practices. So, we're having to get creative about tools and methods, while trying not to impact operations at all — because no matter what, the DSN needs to keep receiving data."

The Human Centered Design Group is also responsible for developing and programming the 3D terrain mapping system used by the Curiosity rover team.

To Boldly Zoom

Imagine the starship Enterprise traveling through interstellar space, exploring strange new worlds — and the Bridge is largely empty. All the crew, from captain to science officer to navigator, is cloistered away working from their personal quarters. The communications officer, also isolated, keeps everyone in touch via Zoom. 

For JPL, it's something like that.