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Working on Mars

Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery with the Mars Exploration Rovers

William J. Clancey
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Working on Mars
    Book Description:

    Geologists in the field climb hills and hang onto craggy outcrops; they put their fingers in sand and scratch, smell, and even taste rocks. Beginning in 2004, however, a team of geologists and other planetary scientists did field science in a dark room in Pasadena, exploring Mars from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) by means of the remotely operated Mars Exploration Rovers (MER). Clustered around monitors, living on Mars time, painstakingly plotting each movement of the rovers and their tools, sensors, and cameras, these scientists reported that they felt as if they were on Mars themselves, doing field science. The MER created a virtual experience of being on Mars. In this book, William Clancey examines how the MER has changed the nature of planetary field science. Drawing on his extensive observations of scientists in the field and at the JPL, Clancey investigates how the design of the rover mission enables field science on Mars, explaining how the scientists and rover engineers manipulate the vehicle and why the programmable tools and analytic instruments work so well for them. He shows how the scientists felt not as if they were issuing commands to a machine but rather as if they were working on the red planet, riding together in the rover on a voyage of discovery.Learn more about the book here:

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30571-6
    Subjects: Physics, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. 1 Scientists Working on Mars
    (pp. 1-12)

    It is 3:13 a.m. at Gusev crater on Mars, and the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) calledSpiritis powered down for the night. The team of scientists who are “working Gusev” are living and working on Mars time, but, with some luck, they are fast asleep in their Pasadena, California, apartments. The MER is a remotely operated vehicle, and it is not the only one exploring Mars at this time. On nearly the opposite side of the planet, at Meridiani Planum, it is 3:12 p.m. local Mars time and another MER calledOpportunityis busy carrying out its programmed plan...

  6. 2 Mission Origin and Accomplishments
    (pp. 13-26)

    Kneeling alongside the Mars Exploration Rover, you experience its human proportions—you can reach down and compare your arm to its arm for deploying instruments; you can stretch your arms to show the width of its wing-like solar panels; and standing, you are face to face with the panorama camera’s two eyes, which are about 5 feet high. The invention of this robotic laboratory is complex historically, technically, and politically. Here I establish some basic facts about its design and place in the study of Mars, so that we can appreciate why the scientists are so excited to participate on...

  7. 3 A New Kind of Field Science
    (pp. 27-52)

    On an overcast July afternoon on Devon Island in the Canadian North Arctic, I was climbing a scree slope of loose, ankle-bruising rocks with a geology graduate student. Ahead on a sheer cliff wall was an outcrop of interest (figure 3.1/plate 4). Its horizontal bands, broken by a fault, revealed the sedimentary undersea past of this valley. As we were sliding and struggling for footing, I remembered how Apollo 15 astronauts avoided descending into slopes at Hadley Rille and wondered whether Mars astronauts would be allowed to take such risks. Or could we design a rover that could climb like...

  8. 4 A New Kind of Scientific Exploration System
    (pp. 53-70)

    After reading about MER over the years, it may become easy to take the story for granted and summarize it simplistically: “Rovers are exploring Mars; scientists are learning about ancient aqueous processes.” But when Steve Squyres says in a lecture, “We could have done much more if we were there,”¹ a host of questions arises: what was MER lacking? Is the solution a technology we can afford to build soon? Or is the limitation inherent in the very concept of doing field science with a robotic laboratory? Or is Squyres’s belief, generally shared by the scientists, just an early impression...

  9. 5 The Mission Scientists
    (pp. 71-98)

    Scientists joining NASA from academic positions in areas of computer science, psychology, or the social sciences, such as anthropology, soon learn that “scientist” has an unfamiliar meaning at NASA.Scientistsare those who work in the fields of inquiry that drive space science projects, especially geology, physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy. Other members of the team are calledengineers(e.g., computer scientists) orhuman factors specialists(e.g., social scientists). Their research topics are not treated in missions as being of scientific interest in themselves; the planetary scientists’ interest in having such people around is practical—their work is instrumental to...

  10. 6 Being the Rover: We’re on Mars
    (pp. 99-140)

    Working with a MER rover requires tending it day after day for years, planning and interpreting its actions as a team as it returns some images and spectral data, rolls to the next destination, or remains in a small area for months scrutinizing nearby rocks and soil. Individual contributions vary over time but the team remains engaged in the investigation. As Rice said in the summer of 2006, the experience of being on Mars is captivating, and new data continually invigorates their interest: “I’m still heavily involved in operations, and I’m geology lead for a week out of every month....

  11. 7 The Communal Scientist
    (pp. 141-172)

    An inherent aspect of “being the rover” is that it can be in only one place at a time, so sometimes excruciating decisions must be made about a particular path and the inquiry that everyone must follow. The scientists move together across the plains of Mars, looking and probing the rocks as one body. As the mind of the rover, they merge their observations into one agreed plan. Rice explained that the decision in early 2006 about whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise around Home Plate (figure 10.1)—whether to see the south end, seeking new clues for understanding this...

  12. 8 The Scientist Engineers
    (pp. 173-196)

    One evening when I was observing MER operations in Pasadena, I sat with Sims in the engineering control room. It reminded me of NASA’s “mission control” at Johnson Space Center in Houston with the desks in rows, like pews, oriented toward walls covered by huge displays (figure 8.1/plate 17). Sims showed me the timeline indicating when communications with Opportunity would occur and what data would arrive. The MER mission manager, Jim Erickson, a veteran of Viking and a handful of other missions and soon to become MER’s project manager, came over to investigate. As a stranger in a security-controlled area,...

  13. 9 The Personal Scientist
    (pp. 197-220)

    It’s after 7:00 p.m. in the Haughton River basin on Devon Island, on July 22, 1998, our expedition’s last night in the Canadian Arctic. Everyone is gathered around a table piled high with bread, condiments, and Tang, in the heavy, white canvas “mess” tent we use for cooking and eating. A brilliant yellow-orange light glows behind the west wall, partly shaded by a cockeyed Mars Pathfinder poster but still brightly illuminating and adding some warmth to the only occupied space within 100 miles. Mike Long, a writer fromNational Geographic, has assembled the group for a poetry reading of the...

  14. 10 The Future of Planetary Surface Exploration
    (pp. 221-250)

    What have we learned about using a robotic laboratory to conduct field science on a planetary surface? What are the lessons for the future scientific exploration of Mars? More generally, what have we learned about the design of operations in which routine, programmable activities (such as a Mini-TES scan, moving to another site, and even finding rocks of a certain type) can be relegated to robotic systems?

    I have sought to answer these questions by examining what accounts for the quality of the MER scientists’ work, focusing on their direct experience: in investigating the martian landscape, in working as a...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 251-258)

    When Squyres says, “We are conducting the first overland expedition across the surface of another planet, ever, in human history,”¹ he is making a scientific statement about the nature of the investigation while expressing an explorer’s excitement of being the first to do it. For the scientists, the story of MER naturally weaves these two ways of thinking: one rigorously scientific, the other personal and sometimes broadly romantic. When justifying the space program, serious scientific, technological, economic, educational, and sometimes political rationalizations are publicly expected.² Lyrical and emotional inspirations are left for the entertainment world of science fiction literature, television,...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 259-284)
  17. Bibliographic Essay
    (pp. 285-292)
  18. Glossary
    (pp. 293-298)
  19. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  20. Index
    (pp. 299-310)