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Martian Diaries

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Inside the Real Mission Control
By Jeffrey Marlow


The black placards perched above each station describe the various duties. This image shows the "Mechanisms" desktop which monitors the motors and other movable parts on the spacecraft.

In one corner of the Mars Science Laboratory mission operations floor, computer projectors beam constantly updating color-coded charts onto four large screens that cover the walls. This is the room you envision when you think about "Mission Control": headset-clad engineers sit stone-faced, poring over lines of code to monitor the health of the Curiosity rover. The only things missing are the dramatic lighting and a Hans Zimmer sound track.

There are a couple of dozen desks facing toward the front of the room, where the Mission Manager directs traffic. Each work station has two large computer monitors, and some of the engineers have deployed an additional laptop, just for good measure. The room has an atmosphere of controlled focus, in contrast to the spontaneous sidebars that often sprout up in the science team rooms.

The black placards perched above each station describe the various duties: "Mechanisms" monitors the motors and other movable parts on the spacecraft; "Power" evaluates the output of the radioisotope thermoelectric generator; "Data Management" determines the onboard memory capacity, influencing the types of scientific observations that can be scheduled safely.

The "Fault Protection" station is manned by Gene Lee, who will be the first to learn of potential problems somewhere onboard Curiosity. The signal would come from a built-in software monitor: "the software can detect that something is broken," he says, "and that manifests as an anomalous signal that the spacecraft sends back." There are approximately 1,000 top-level monitors to keep track of - and many local monitors that Lee accurately suspects are too complicated for me to understand. When scanning for potential problems, "I want to know, have any of the system monitors tripped?" he explains. "Have they run any automatic responses to try and fix the problem?"

Lee has been checking in on the spacecraft's alarm system since its launch in November of last year. One day, the flight software reset unexpectedly, triggering the spacecraft's fault protection state. Fortunately, there were no lasting complications, the problem was fixed, and since surface activities began last week, "we've been quite nominal; there have been no real problems."

Together, the dozens of engineers give the rover a daily check-up and determine if it is fit for scientific activity. "Each time we get data from an orbiter pass," Lee says, "we evaluate what came down and report on the state of the spacecraft."

"To decide if we can go ahead with what the science team wants to do, we need to give them the green light."

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