Meet the Humans Behind the Mars Rovers

By Sophie Bushwick | July 22, 2012 10:00 am

spacing is important
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, read the full Popular Science story.

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Ken Wymore

    A lag of 4 to 20 minutes? Color me puzzled. Wouldn’t the time lag be constant?

  • Pippa

    Only if the earth and mars were the same distance apart all the time, Ken, – and they are not. This changes as they move around their orbits.
    Now THAT (robot driver and builder) is a job that I would love!

  • Darin Selby

    Most of us Baby Boomers have allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing that “Mom, apple pie, and launch the Mars Rover!” is the way to go.

    In the process, the planet is being trashed by more and more launches, as the industry WORLDWIDE increases, to launch even PRIVATIZED space vehicles, based upon the tried and tested technology of the environmentally-disasterous Space Shuttle era.

    At this point, I question the need to go into outer space at all, to accomplish the very thing that we’re collectively seeking to do in the first place.

    This veil of hypocrisy of the space program being for the ‘betterment of all Mankind’ must be lifted, to reveal what is REALLY going on with the trashing of the environment at large.

    I’ve just written an article about what I feel are “Four Factual Errors about the Space Program” – including a much better, cheaper and more reliable way that NASA already had to land their ‘Curiosity’ rover on Mars.

    Other follow-up material to study as well:

    Do share with me your thoughts.


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