They’re not over the moon yet but a group of students now know what it’s like to drive on Mars.
This past week Western University hosted the second annual Technologies and Techniques for Earth and Space Exploration project for PhD candidates studying science and engineering.
They spent eight days working as the mission control centre for a rover operating on a mock Mars landscape at a Canadian Space Agency (CSA) facility in the countryside east of Montreal.
Every space mission control centre has a front room and a back room. The “front room” at the CSA facility, where commands are actually sent to the $7 million prototype Mars rover outside, is a relatively quiet place.
The Western control room represented what would be the “back room” at a CSA or NASA control centre, where the debate and discussion takes place, and the plan for the day ahead is set.
That means they were the brains of the operation, according to Mary Kerrigan, who left the Emerald Isle to get her master’s in geology at Western and stayed for her PhD.
She said it’s good for testing the rover and how it responds to instructions.
Time and resource management is the name of the game. Each day, the group starts at 7 a.m. by reviewing the data the rover downloaded from the day previous. Then they decide what instructions to send for the day ahead.
They teleconference with the students at CSA so everyone’s on the same page, then spend the rest of the six-hour day thinking about the big picture.
“It’s great as a human interaction, working as a team, everyone has their role to play (Mary was on the GIS team),” she said.
Since resources are extremely limited, each day’s operations are affected by what happened the day before and the students have to think about what they want to do days ahead. If they want to explore the east end of the Mars yard today, for example, they know they won’t have time to do anything in the west end tomorrow or vice versa.
They only have six hours a day for eight days to tour around, take pictures and drill or scoop for samples, and each task takes a long time. Just positioning the rover’s arm for a pick-up takes 90 minutes, according to Kerrigan.
She explained at one point they had a long conversation about where to find 10 extra minutes in the day’s plan for one extra little operation. The verdict was to take a black-and-white photo of one of their subjects (probably a rock) instead of colour earlier on, because it would download faster.
“We have a data budget as well,” she explained. “We have a certain number of megabytes we can download (per day).”
The CSA is learning too. It’s the first time the system has been used outside the agency.
“As well as us learning what the mission is like, we’re also providing feedback and telling them where there are bugs, where the functionality needs to be changed, maybe there are some things we don’t need the rover to do or some things we do, things like that.”
Dr. Gordon Osinski is running the show. He said the idea is to bring scientists and engineers together to talk the same language and talk about space exploration.
Funded by a six-year National Science and Engineering Council (NSERC) grant, the hope is the groundwork will lead to experts from both fields collaborating to design new instruments for earth and space exploration.
Osinski said year’s exercise is much more realistic that last year’s was. The prototype Mars rover built by MDA being used this year is much closer to what the CSA would actually send into space than the robot used in 2013.
Next year the plan is to send the rover to the Arctic for a month and introduce a more realistic “Mars delay” between when commands are issued and when the rover responds. The lag is about 44 minutes according to the students.
“It’s interesting, for the actual billion-dollar mission on Mars, for the first three months of operations people were at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California but for the past 18 months everyone’s been distributed sort of in home offices or small backrooms like this,” he said. “So it’s very realistic.”