Monday, December 12, 2016

Telecommuting to work on the Red Planet

Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems
Self portrait of the MSL Curiosity Remote Sensing Mast via MAHLI. Taken on sol 32 of the surface mission. Helping to write the plans for taking images like these is just another day at the office for the PVL trainees working as Collaborators on MSL (Christina, Casey, Charissa and Jake).
By: Casey Moore

Members of the group typically fit into “Team Mars” or “Team Moon” — I am a part of “Team Mars.” Our involvement on Mars is through PVLs Participating Scientist (PS) grant on the Mars Science Laboratory mission — MSL or Curiosity for short. This means that certain members of the group can participate in Science Operations.  Since we are stationed outside of the United States (and MSL is a mission led through NASA/JPL) — the work we do is funded by the Canadian Space Agency. In addition to our operations activities, our research involvement in MSL has lead to several peer-reviewed paper authorships for PVL members and many more to come.

So, what is exactly do I mean by Science Operations? Well, in short, this is where members of the lab participate in planning Curiosity’s sol-to-sol activities (a sol is a martian day, approx. 24h39m). Participating in rover ops is a time commitment, but it is enjoyable and a nice break from the daily grind.

Credit: NASA/KSC
PVL members answer the call to help explore the Martian surface, albeit, remotely with what is arguably the most advanced rover mission to date.

Dr. John Moores, myself, Jacob Kloos, and Dr. Christina Smith are trained as what is termed: Environmental Science Theme Lead/Keeper of the Plan (ESTLK for short, we love our acronyms).  Over the next few months, we will be training a newer member, Charissa Campbell, as an ESTLK.

So what exactly does an ESTLK do?

Let’s break that down… There are two science theme groups, geology and environmental. We mostly study atmospheric science at the PVL — hence we are a part of the Environmental Science Theme Group. Being a theme lead means we decide on what environmental observations we would like to see in the plan. Being a Keeper of the Plan means we actually put the observations in the plan. Originally these were two different roles, but prior to my hiring, the two roles had been combined. They are still separate roles over on the geology side of things.

What types of observations do we plan?  

The environmental scientists on the team decided on what observations we would like to conduct. Several of the observations are passive background observations, such as DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons) and REMS (Rover Environmental Monitoring Station), two instruments on Curiosity. DAN is a neutron counter and REMS is a mini-weather station — which records: air and ground temperature, relative humidity, UV flux, pressure, wind speed/direction.  Other observations we conduct are imaging requests, requiring either the Mast Cameras or the Navigation Cameras.

What is a typical day of planning like?

Generally, the start time is 8AM Pacific, so for us over here in Toronto, that means an 11AM start. Each morning, we inherit a pre-planed fragment, this was developed by the ESTLK the previous planning cycle. We update the plan with the latest skeleton plan. The skeleton, is essentially a giant time-table with all the rovers engineering duties planned out with spaces left for science blocks. Once the pre-plan fragment is updated with the newest skeleton, we check the plan to make sure things still fit nicely. If they don’t we modify the timings of observations to make things fit properly. If for any reason, things just don’t seem to work no matter what we do, we have about 30 minutes in the morning to let the rover planners know about there particular situation we find ourselves in. Rover planners will work together to resolve our issue by shifting the timings of engineering activities — these people are amazing at their job and I’ve never had a problem they could not handle.

The skeleton will update for the next hour, people will come onto chat and request additional observations or request information about the observations from the ESTLK. DAN and REMS will typically do a final walk-trough of their activities and will OKAY the plan or request refinements. Once everything is A-Okay, we will deliver the plan to what is known as the Science Operations Working Group (SOWG). The science planners over at JPL will combine the ENV, GEO, and Engineering fragments into one master plan. Thirty minutes later, everyone meets in a teleconference and we walk through the plan. We do this to make sure everything ENV and GEO have brought into the plan were scheduled properly, and to assess the data and power requirements for the observations. If the rover is limited on power, some observations may need to be left out — same goes for being over the daily data limit.

Once the plan has been okayed by the SOWG Chair, the plan continues to be evaluated and built, and eventually will be uploaded to Curiosity. Our job as ESTLK is done for that plan, but our job as ESTLK is not over yet. Remember how I said we inherent a plan at the start of the day? Well, now we have to create that plan for the next cycle of planning. Depending on the day, we may be pre-planning a one, two or three sol plan. We create a new plan using a preview of the skeleton for the next cycle of planning and pretty much repeat what we did earlier in the day, but instead of checking the timing of all the observations, we put the observations in the plan according to the timing requirements. Once we get an okay from REMS and DAN we are all set.

So what’s the end product of all this planning? 

JPEG versions of the images from Curiosity’s cameras are released to the public within 24 hours after downlink through the Deep Space Network.  Other types of rover data (raw and higher-level products) are released to the public after preparation and validation for the PDS.  Curiosity’s data sets are delivered to the PDS in batches three times a year, 3 to 8 months after receipt on Earth.

You can find the publicly released data products for all of Curiosity’s instruments at the PDS
You can view raw images from MSL at NASA
You can view preliminary REMS data at the Centro de Astrobiologia (CSIC-INTA)
You can find a press release on two mars years of environmental data over at NASA

I hope you enjoyed this little introduction to what we do in rover planning. Unfortunately it is not as hollywood would make you believe (e.g. Howard Wolowitz using a joy-stick to remotely operate a rover on Mars only to accidentally get the rover stuck in a ditch all in an effort to impress a date…). Since there is a time delay between Mars and Earth, it makes sense to plan an entire sols’ worth of activities and get progress reports back from the rover instead of ‘real-time’ operations. Maybe in the future, humans orbiting Mars could make use of real-time operations, but in my opinion, if humans are orbiting Mars, surely there’d be people working on the surface, no?

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