September 7, 2013
What’s It Like To Drive A Rover On Mars? [Exclusive]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Most people have someone they know who has a job they are a little envious of, but there are few people in this world who have careers that even some of the most coveted positioned people envy — driving a rover on Mars.
Last year, NASA landed its fourth rover on Mars and kickstarted a mission that would unveil more about the Red Planet than ever before. This rover has provided incredible imagery of our neighboring planet, and has unveiled data about its history scientists have only begun to dig through. However, redOrbit wanted to find out who was behind the wheel during these expeditions, as well as past missions, and what it takes to pilot a vehicle millions of miles away from home.
Past Martian rovers have included Sojourner, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the latest-and-greatest Curiosity rover. While Sojourner was more of a mission within a mission, Spirit and Opportunity set out like Lewis and Clark to explore the unexplored regions of Mars during NASA's Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission.
Spirit, the older of the two twin rovers in terms of launch dates, spent six years aiding scientists in understanding more about the Red Planet. Opportunity still roams to this day, making it the longest running rover on Mars.
Curiosity, part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL), is the newest and most advanced of the bunch, equipped with cameras that snap images in unprecedented detail and a laboratory that has already determined that Mars once hosted an environment suitable for life in its past.
All of these rovers took years of envisioning, planning and preparations before sailing off 300 million miles away to take on their task. However, after the smoke from the launch pad cleared, and the rovers found their way towards their landing site, it has been people like Jeng Yen, who have taken on some of the responsibility from there.
Yen works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he drives rovers. He has an impressive resume and education background, numerous awards, and several publications, but the coolest thing Yen can say he's done is pilot a 2,000 pound rover on another planet, exploring the unknown.
"It feels great to brag about driving the most expensive car on the frontier millions of miles away," Yen told redOrbit in an interview. "Especially when I talked the rover driver experience with kids, they often asked me how I did the driving of the rover so far away, I often answered with 'not much different with playing a video game.' They all think that I have the greatest job in the world and that science is very cool!"
Jeng does have the greatest job in the world, and even though he's right about the experience being kind of like playing a video game, it would have to be the most complicated video game in the world. A kind of video game that requires its users to have a PhD to play it. Yen explained a little bit of the process of driving rovers on Mars, and it's a little more detailed than grabbing a joystick and pressing go.
"Once a driving target was given, I use both the images and the orbital data generated digital elevation map (DEM) to draft a path to the target area. Next, I will create the drive sequence of turns and moves (called arcs) to follow the drafted path. Apply rover simulation software to predict the track, I then use the computer stereo vision to examine the path in 3D. Based on the 3D stereo view, I will adjust the path by reposition rover to avoid potential hazardous areas."
After these steps are repeated, he makes a request from the science and engineer teams before actually setting up Curiosity to drive the path. When asked what his favorite part about his job was, Yen had an answer than only someone sitting in his chair could have come up with.
"Watching the new imagery downlink from the rover is one of my favorite things when I start a rover driver shift. Looking at the images I feel like a traveler exploring a new place which no one has traveled before," Jeng said.
Yen and his colleagues are the closest thing we currently have to real-life Martian explorers. Although it’s probably done with a latte-in-hand and sitting in a comfy chair, the team at NASA is driving a $2.5 billion rover down a carefully crafted route through extraterrestrial terrain.
The job, however, did just get a little easier for the rover driving team. Curiosity just recently added "autonomous navigation" to its suite of skills. This new talent added to the most advanced rover in the history of NASA allowing Curiosity to plot out its own path, with hopes it will not find the same fate Spirit did in 2009 when Martian topsoil grabbed hold of the rover and never let go. Although Curiosity may be plotting out its own path, it's still Jeng's job to ensure its safety.
One day, NASA will most likely be sending man on a mission to set foot on Mars to perform science a rover just couldn't. However, even after a 9-month trek to the Red Planet, those astronauts will still not be able to say they piloted a rover from another planet.