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Martian Diaries

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Mars Science Lab Operations Go Global
By Jeffrey Marlow

On Friday, Sanjeev Gupta, a Participating Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, woke up in Pasadena and walked past his apartment complex's swimming pool to the parking garage. He got in his car, turned the ignition, and wheeled onto the 210 freeway, squinting through the California sun glinting off the car in front of him. Gupta drove past the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl stadium, past the estates that once grew oranges (and hosted well-heeled vacationers escaping downtown Los Angeles), to the foot of the cacti-accented San Gabriel Mountains and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JPL nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Monday, Gupta had a very different commute to work, leaving his home near Greenwich, London, and boarding a local train into the city.

After transferring to the District Tube line and squeezing into the carriages as fellow passengers rumpled the pages of morning tabloid papers around him, he emerged in South Kensington. There, he walked past a Lebanese falafel stand, past the pockmarked red walls of the Victoria & Albert Museum (which still bear scars from WWII), past the brick home of the Royal Geographical Society (where explorers like Scott and Livingstone once gathered to tell tales of their voyages), and into his 2nd story office in the Royal School of Mines at London's Imperial College.

The abrupt shift in scenery is all part of the plan as MSL rover operations go global. Per the original schedule, the international team spent the first 90 martian days together in Pasadena, learning protocols for rover operations, becoming fluent in NASA acronym-ese, living on Mars time, and meeting the fellow scientists with whom they will be working over the next few years.

The Royal School of Mines building on Imperial College London's South Kensington Campus. Credit: Imperial College London/Christian Richters.

Gupta is a sedimentologist who's interested in reading Gale Crater's rock deposits for clues to the planet's past. But having done all of his work on terrestrial systems, he wasn't quite sure what an active Mars mission would entail. "Coming in," Gupta recalls during his final weekend in Pasadena, "I had no expectations whatsoever. I wasn't quite aware of the complexity of this, and I've just been filled with awe with what the engineering and science teams are able to do."

And while he was eager to see his family again, Gupta was a bit less excited about the climatic adjustments he would be facing. "The sun here has been great," he said wistfully. "It's going to be a bit of a shock going back to the dreary London weather."

Now, as JPL engineers and a subset of the science team man the controls in the sparsely populated MSL rooms, remote operations are coming into effect. Telecons and dedicated chat rooms have become the primary communication tools, and planning meetings are now be restricted to normal-person hours, a welcome change from the circadian rhythm-scrambling clock of Mars time. For Gupta, the time shift is a mixed blessing: meetings will now occur on a regular schedule, but the nine hour time difference between Pasadena and London will make for some very late nights.

"So far it's been great to see how far you can move if people work together effectively," said Gupta. "And it's going to be a long mission, so hopefully I'll be back in California soon."