My first day roving on Mars

I recently joined the Mars Exploration Rover team as a TAP/SIE (Tactical Activity Planner / Sequence Integration Engineer) for the Opportunity rover. That means it’s my job to sit in on the morning SOWG (Science Operations Working Group) meeting, in which the rover’s scientific goals for the day are set, and then work with payload, thermal, downlink, mobility, and other experts to come up with a plan to achieve those goals. What pictures will we take? When? Where will we drive? Is there enough power?

Reading the training documents only gets you so far. I’ve just begun “shadowing” the current TAP/SIEs so that I can learn on the job, watching over their shoulders through a day of planning. My first shift was on Wednesday, and it was supposed to be an “easy” day: pick one of two rock targets, drive towards it, and take some pictures looking backward at yesterday’s tracks.

Scientists dialed in from all over the country for the SOWG meeting. After some debate and consultation with the Rover Planners, they settled on the rock that had the easiest approach. The scientists signed off and we went to work building the plan.

The TAP/SIE’s job is facilitated by a bewildering array of scripts and tools. These allow for the setup, development, refinement, and checking of the plan. Are power or thermal constraints violated? Do we have enough onboard storage space for the new images to be collected and enough downlink allocation to get them back to Earth?

While the RPs (Rover Planners) settled in to their job of constructing the drive sequence, we worked on the full sol’s plan (a day on Mars, which is 24 hours and 40 minutes in Earth time, is called a sol). Very quickly we realized that the planned drive, despite covering only a couple of meters, would drain the rover’s battery dangerously low. Opportunity was starting the sol at only 80% charge because of two long instrument observations the previous sol.

We modified the plan to give the rover a morning “nap” in which it could sun itself and collect power, like a desert lizard. That helped the power situation, but not enough. Several iterations later, we finally squeaked by at 0.1 Amp-hour above the required threshold.

Meanwhile, the RPs were growing concerned about a different problem. To reach its goal, Opportunity would have to straddle a rock that, while small by human standards, could pose a risk to the rover’s instrument arm, which dangles slightly down when stowed for driving. The RPs put their 3D simulation of the rover and the terrain up for all to see, and we stared at the screen while they spun the rover and tried to examine the rock from all angles.

“Can we raise the arm while it drives over the rock?” I whispered to the TAP/SIE I was shadowing. “It’s risky to do that,” she whispered back. “The arm bobs around, especially going over a big rock.”

A few minutes later, a scientist on the telecon asked, “Can’t we just put the arm up?” but was quickly shot down by the TUL (Tactical Uplink Lead, head planner): “Too risky.” The TAP/SIE and I grinned at each other.

Ultimately, it was deemed too dangeous to drive over the rock with our current data (images the rover had taken the sol before), and they decided to drive up to that rock and stop. Post-drive imaging would illuminate the obstacle in more detail.

At the end of our shift, which apparently was two hours later than usual, we had a plan. We ran it through multiple checks and re-checks and manually confirmed all of the sequences. The final walk-through was punctuated with “check!” coming from different areas of the room as each person confirmed that their part was correctly represented. The plan was finalized and transmitted to the rover using the Deep Space Network later that night.

There’s nothing like seeing a job in action. I learned a lot about the steps involved in planning and (unexpectedly) a lot of re-planning. For the rover, today is “tosol” and yesterday is “yestersol.” I got to practice the phonetic alphabet, which is used to communicate letters (in rover sequence ids) with a minimal chance that they will be misheard. I even got to help out a bit as a second pair of eyes to catch typos, spot constraint violations, and suggest alternative solutions. And I’ll be back on shift next Monday!

Opportunity is near Endeavor Crater, working its way along a ridge that is at the perfect tilt to keep its solar arrays pointed toward the sun. This is important because Winter Is Coming, even on Mars, and we want to keep it sufficiently powered to make it through to spring — its fifth spring on Mars. (Opportunity landed 9.5 Earth years ago!)

5 of 5 people learned something from this entry.

  1. C.J. said,

    August 23, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Wow! So it’s not just like driving an RC car around in the backyard?

  2. Umaa said,

    August 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Always wondered how it worked. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jon said,

    August 24, 2013 at 12:46 am

    (Learned something new!)

    So amazing!

  4. HARLEY JACOBS said,

    August 24, 2013 at 6:53 am

    I am so proud of you and honored that you would share the adventure with me. As a young kid growing up in the 1960s, JPL was key to what was happening in the US space program. Houston and Cape Canaveral (Kennedy) was responsible for the hardware, but even as a kid, I knew, JPL was where the brains were. Keep them on their toes.

  5. Susan said,

    August 26, 2013 at 11:12 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Wow! This is so incredibly fascinating! I would never have been able to guess what it’s like on the inside of working with these things.

  6. Mike Bushroe said,

    October 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I knew that the sequence planning was a very detail oriented process, but I had not included the added concerns of power reserve, thermal (I just always assumed that it could handle the full range of the non-winter environment), data buffer and telemetry bandwidth. And I should have expected the later, as when I worked on the Huygens probe descending into Titan, we did not have real time control, but had the software keep the telemetry buffers at a certain level during each phase of the descent by only taking more spectra or images when there was room. And for the final 2K, empty the buffers and send only image triplets the moment the buffers emptied, and finally only the high resolution, down looking images at max buffer rate. The plan was to have empty buffers at impact, incase the Huygens probe did not survive. But it did, and the several hours of post impact images were great!
    Was the rover planning and command sequence generation initially done at LPL in Tucson? I thought I heard some people were working the uplink command sequences for the MERs while I was still working there.


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