When Spirit and Opportunity left Earth, they entered the "cruise" phase
of the mission. For seven months, these spacecraft will sail through
the interplanetary void on a trajectory for Mars. You may think this is
a time when engineers and scientists can kick back, relax, take
vacations, catch up on some reading. Not so. The Mars Exploration
Rover mission is still in high gear and its focus is not only on the
health and navigation of the spacecraft. Here on Earth, the cruise
phase of the mission is an intense time of training for the people who
will operate the rovers on Mars.
Like athletes who must prepare for the main event, the MER team has a
training schedule. Scientists and engineers will immerse themselves in
several tests that simulate the situations they will face during landed
operations. These are not tests that take hours. These are tests that
last for days, sometimes weeks. The rovers are complex machines. It
takes practice, practice and more practice to learn how to command them.
Software has to be learned and example scenarios played out.
Scientists have to learn how to make decisions collaboratively since
there is a limited amount of time to complete individual experiments on
The first big test for the science team was the Science Process test.
The entire team walked through the procedures they will use to do
science on Mars. This included a simulation of the uplink and/or
downlink process. Uplink is when instructions are sent to the rovers
from Earth. Downlink is when data are received from the rovers. A
rehearsal of the science process gives the team a chance to correct
potential problems and smooth out rough spots before they face the real
thing on the Red Planet.
Following the Science Process test is a seven-month schedule packed with
SORTs — Surface Operations Readiness Tests. Scientists and engineers
use a bank of computers at the Jet Propulsion Lab to send commands to a
full-scale rover located in a large chamber with a simulated martian
surface. They do not see the test rover. The commands are sent
blindly, just as they will be when the rovers are on Mars. Computer
software offers a simulated 3-D view of the rovers and their martian
landing sites. Only after the test is complete is the MER team allowed
to view the actual rover model and how it responded to their
Groups of instructions that tell the rovers where to go and which tasks
to complete are called "sequences." Throughout the seven months of
cruise, scientists and engineers are designing and building sequences
that will be tested in a SORT. There are nominal sequences that cover
routine tasks, and there are contingency sequences that act as back-up
should the rovers be unable to complete their original duties.
Each SORT focuses on a different aspect of landed operations. An
"impact to egress" SORT covers the critical time from touch down through
egress — when the rovers leave their landers. There is a lot to do.
After the long journey to Mars and the impact of landing, the health of
the rovers and their science payload must be checked. The first
MER-view images of Mars are acquired and sent back to Earth. Pancam and
Mini-TES take their first panoramas. These are 360-degree surveys of
the terrain. From these images, scientists select interesting targets
for further study and a drive direction for the rovers. Egress from the
lander is a risky maneuver that must be carried out very carefully.
Then, after the rovers are on solid martian ground (or, in this case,
simulated martian ground in the test chamber), images are taken to
assess the safety of the drive off the landers.
Other SORTs include "surface approach," which helps the team understand
how to approach a target rock and position the rover arm when it
deploys, and "anomalies" SORTs that serve up a week's worth of difficult
Another Earth-based activity during the cruise phase of the mission is
similar to a SORT, but is not a blind test. A full-scale model of the
rover is transported to a Mars-like location here on Earth and is sent a
string of commands. MER scientists and engineers watch the rover as it
responds to the commands. The more that is learned about the way the
rover and its science instruments move, the easier it will be to
understand how to build sequences for the rovers.
As Spirit and Opportunity speed toward Mars, more than three hundred
scientists and engineers here on Earth will learn how to act in unison
to master the art of commanding two very complex robots to do science on
Web content editor/writer: Pamela R. Smith
Previous Science Bites