Concept art of Curiosity on Mars
With any luck, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity will land successfully in August and trundle off across the surface of the Red Planet. Headlines will laud the brave little robot travelling so far from home. But behind Curiosity, and its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, is a team of human operators. Over at Popular Science, Rebecca Boyle looks into
the experiences of the rover drivers.
Scott Maxwell stared at his bedroom ceiling in the hours after his first drive, restless with excitement. All systems were go, and he'd sent the commands by the time he left the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now he was supposed to sleep before his next shift on Mars time. But he knew that on the fourth planet from the sun, the Spirit rover’s wheels had started to move. “I was thinking that at that moment, there is a robot on another planet, doing what I told it to do. I could not imagine going to sleep,” Maxwell recalls. “It just blew my mind. And I still think it’s amazing that what I do with my day job is reach out my hand across 100 million miles across of empty space, and move something on another planet.”
These human commanders must instruct the rovers to gather data while avoiding storms and tricky terrain---despite a lag time of 4 to 20 minutes from the time the orders leave Earth to the time the robots receive them…and then another lag time while the response from Mars beams back to Earth. For more on the rover operators, and how they tried to save the now-defunct Spirit
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech