Tag Archives: Phoenix

Scientific shift work

Some of the people on teams managing the rovers on Mars call themselves “Rover drivers” or “Mars drivers.” Of course, things are not that simple. It is not possible to drive a vehicle on Mars in real-time from Earth. Instead, computer code must be uploaded to enable the vehicle to carry out planned manoeuvres, analyses, etc., autonomously.  And the computer code can only be written after the results of the previous commands are known.

In practice, this involves large teams of engineers, software experts and scientists. Each team has their own work – and the teams need to interact to plan the rover’s work, iron out priorities, and deal with problems. This work has to occur at strange times, and with deadlines, to fit in with the activity and day/night programme on Mars. Energy limitations means that the rover usually does not operate during the Martial day.

So all this work, the meetings of each team and their joint meetings, and decisions about planned activity must take place before the rover “wakes up.” And because the results from the previous day’s activities feed into this detailed decision cannot be made and code written until after that data has been downloaded and analysed.

The graphic above was shown in one of the recent Mars Science Laboratory – Curiosity – media briefings. It indicates the time line for the Laboratory to be active (“awake”), the downloading of data via the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters, assessment of data, planning of future activity (particularly that for the next day), interaction of engineering, scientific and software teams, integration of plans, validation and approval and then the sending of the new commands to Curiosity as it “wakes up” for the new day.

I note they have even left a brief time gap “margin” to handle unforeseen problems.

It must be fascinating to work in large teams like this on scientific projects. And I am sure there are also political and emotional problems that need management as well as the engineering, scientific and software problems. Apparently with groups managing Mars rovers the shift-work, and the drift in shift times because of mismatch in the length of the Earth day and the Mars sol, causes “jet lag.” So the emotional and human issues resulting from this also need management.

Andrew Kessler gives an idea of the procedures involved in managing Mars rovers and landers in his book Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission. This is based on his own experiences as a journalist embedded in the teams managing the recent Phoenix lander. It’s a bit of an eye-opener – at least for someone who hasn’t worked in such large scientific teams before.

See Working on Mars for my review of that book.

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Infectious jubilation

Crowd in New York’s Times Square celebrate successful Mars landing – 1:30 am. Credit: Jason Major (@JPMajor)

The mass interest in the current Olympics, and yesterday’s landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars really brought home to me that we are an empathetic species. We celebrate the achievements of others and feel the jubilation they do when things go right.

And with Curiosity’s successful landing I think we also celebrate the achievement because we see that it belongs to all of us. It is an achievement for all humanity.

The achievement is huge. The technically difficult landing seemed to go without a hitch. Scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were receiving images within minutes. Everyone was aware that attempts at Mars landing have a history of failure.

The descent by parachute was photographed by a high-resolution camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. – see below.

Photo: NASA – Curiosity Spotted on Parachute by Orbiter.

That seems incredibly lucky but clearly a lot of skill and technology went into this achievement as well. As Phil Plait wrote on Bad Astronomy:

“The simple and sheer amazingness of this picture cannot be overstated. Here we have a picture taken by a camera on board a space probe that’s been orbiting Mars for six years, reset and re-aimed by programmers hundreds of millions of kilometers away using math and science pioneered centuries ago, so that it could catch the fleeting view of another machine we humans flung across space, traveling hundreds of million of kilometers to another world at mind-bending speeds, only to gently – and perfectly – touch down on the surface mere minutes later.”

According to a media briefing earlier today the full version of this image also shows the abandoned heat shield which landed some distance from the Curiosity’s landing site.


Now we have to be patient while Curiosity is checked out by engineers and slowly brought into full functioning. It will be weeks before the vehicle starts driving around, sampling soil and rocks, and analysing samples.

Even the downloading of images already captured will take time. So far we are only seeing relatively low resolution images. Large teams of engineers and scientists will be working strange hours (the slightly different length of the Martian day (sol) and the Earth day causes “jet lag” for these people) receiving data, planning experiments, writing code and uplifting code and instructions.

Andrew Kessler gives an idea of the activity and life style of the teams involved in managing the last Mars lander – Phoenix – in his book Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission. For my review of this book see Working on Mars.

See also:
Curiosity requires patience
Going for gold – on Mars
Seven Minutes of Terror
Christmas gift ideas: Working on Mars

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Phoenix has landed!

Landing siteI have been keeping my eye on the countdown clock for the phoenix mars lander at the Phoenix lander website and was able to watch activity at the mission control centre on NASA TV.

It’s a pleasure to be able to witness the celebration of the control team as news of the successful landing (shortly before midday New Zealand time) was reported.

The photograph shows the 70 km long ellipse covering the probable landing site on the northern arctic plains.

I now look forward to hearing news of the successful deployment of the robot arm and analysis of soil and water/ice samples.

This is from the Phoenix Landing Events Schedule

Anticipated pace of Mars surface operations
— If operations proceed relatively smoothly, the first eight to 10 days after landing will be a “characterization phase” of checking out and understanding the performance of the spacecraft’s power and thermal systems, as well as the robotic arm and other instruments.
— At the end of the characterization phase (date tba), the first sample of surface soil will be delivered to the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer onboard Phoenix.
— Analysis of soil from the surface in both the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer and in the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer will likely take 10 to 15 days if all processes go well. After that, each additional sampling cycle will reach a deeper subsurface level, in increments of about two to three centimeters. At each different layer, collecting and analyzing samples is expected to take 10 to 15 days, barring operational difficulties.
— How soon the digging reaches the expected icy layer will depend on how far below the surface that layer lies. Estimates in advance of landing range from two to five centimeters. If the ice is at the deeper end of that range, the first analysis of an icy sample could be in July or later.

See also:
Images from Phoenix Lander

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Good luck Phoenix!


The coming weekend is an important one in the history of the scientific exploration of Mars. All going well, on May 25 the lander from the Phoenix Mars Mission will land in the northern polar region.

Phoenix is a stationary laboratory designed to study the history of water and search for complex organic molecules. The arctic region has been chosen because there is evidence for large amounts of subsurface water-ice in the northern arctic plains. A robotic arm will dig through the top soil layer and bring both soil and water-ice to the lander platform for analysis.

Despite the absence of surface liquid water there is evidence that water may once have flowed on the Martian surface. Geologic features like gullies and channels could have been formed by surface erosion, or even the movement of subsurface water.

Liquid water is important because all known forms of life require it to survive. So the Phoenix Mars Mission represent an important step in investigating the possibility of life forms on Mars. This is still an open question. Initial investigations during the Viking Mission of the 1970s produced ambiguous results and this and subsequent missions were not capable of subsurface investigations.

We now know that life can exist in the most extreme conditions and it is possible that dormant microbial colonies may be present in the Martian arctic. It’s thought that the soil environment in these areas may have been favourable for life for brief periods every 100,000 years.

Pheonix is an appropriate name for this mission because it is reborn out of fire, like the mythological Phoenix bird. The mission uses many components of the two unsuccessful Mars missions MPL and MSP ’01.

So good luck Phoenix! A successful landing will produce some fascinating new findings.

See also:
Rover instrument to sniff out life on Mars
Phoenix Mars Mission
The Phoenix landing site
Phoenix Mars Lander Will Probe for Signs of Life
Here is a neat countdown clock for the Phoenix landing

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