The Mars mission has learned to meet new challenges while working remotely.
For people who are able to work remotely during this time of social distancing, video conferences and emails have helped bridge the gap. The same holds true for the team behind NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. They’re dealing with the same challenges of so many remote workers – quieting the dog, sharing space with partners and family, remembering to step away from the desk from time to time – but with a twist: They’re operating on Mars.
On March 20, 2020, nobody on the team was present at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, where the mission is based. It was the first time the rover’s operations were planned while the team was completely remote. Two days later, the commands they had sent to Mars executed as expected, resulting in Curiosity drilling a rock sample at a location called “Edinburgh.”
The team began to anticipate the need to go fully remote a couple weeks before, leading them to rethink how they would operate. Headsets, monitors and other equipment were distributed (picked up curbside, with all employees following proper social-distancing measures).
Not everything they’re used to working with at JPL could be sent home, however: Planners rely on 3D images from Mars and usually study them through special goggles that rapidly shift between left- and right-eye views to better reveal the contours of the landscape. That helps them figure out where to drive Curiosity and how far they can extend its robotic arm.
But those goggles require the advanced graphics cards in high-performance computers at JPL (they’re actually gaming computers repurposed for driving on Mars). In order for rover operators to view 3D images on ordinary laptops, they’ve switched to simple red-blue 3D glasses. Although not as immersive or
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