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Science vs. Engineering
Human-Rover Partnership
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Should I be a scientist or an engineer? Though asked by many math and science students, this question can be misleading and even unnecessary. Perhaps today's students can be both scientists and engineers simultaneously, since the distinctions between the two professions are gradually fading as scientists and engineers work together to explore our universe.

Though their roles and responsibilities have traditionally been separate, scientists and engineers are quickly learning the value of cooperation in the field of Mars exploration. The two Mars Exploration rovers traveling to Mars are essentially robotic scientists, and thus have become the catalyst that has bonded science and robotics inextricably. The rovers are built and maintained by engineers, but manipulated by scientists to gather usable data about the surface of the Mars. The ultimate goal for both groups is to characterize the geology of Mars thoroughly by using the instruments aboard the rovers effectively and efficiently. In order to achieve this, engineers must guide the scientists to minimize risks while still optimizing scientific results. Engineers often serve as a safety check, assessing the dangers of each particular rover command and defining for the scientists the capabilities and limitations of the rover. Since they advise the scientists on such critical subjects as target selection and observation possibilities, the engineers are important participants in this scientific mission.

During FIDO field testing, engineers also play the role of linking the science team to the field team. In order to simulate Mars operations more accurately, the science team must be shielded from certain information they would not have access to during the actual Mars mission. Even the location of the rover is unknown to the scientists, who receive only orbital photos of the test site prior to the mission. Engineers, however, are privy to more information about field operations and the actual execution of rover commands. As a result of the interaction between the engineers and scientists, the field test can effectively simulate a blind test without putting the rover at risk.

FIDO engineers are certainly not limited to advising and assuring the retrieval of data--they also analyze it. When expected data is missing or problematic, engineers can help scientists assess the problem and suggest alternatives. Since they are extremely familiar with the intricacies of the rover and its instruments, engineers can often determine the nature of a problem by looking at collected scientific data. For example, engineers may be able to differentiate instrument problems from temperate-related distortions and transmission errors. Of course, knowing the nature of an apparent problem is essential to determining a prudent solution. Without the aid of engineers, scientists would have more difficulty fixing problems and creating alternatives in order to continue operations as quickly as possible.

The relationship between science and engineering is certainly not one-sided. Where would engineers be without scientists? Perhaps out of a job. Without the appeal of valuable scientific data gathered directly from the surface of Mars, the Mars Exploration Rover mission would be an impressive robotic feat, but not greatly increase our understanding of the Red Planet. Using the equipment and knowledge of engineers, the science team has the opportunity to make important scientific discoveries that will enrich human knowledge about the formation, geologic history, and perhaps future of Mars. Despite the differences in their respective job descriptions, scientists and engineers will experience the same hard-earned feeling of accomplishment once all their hard work pays off on the surface of Mars.


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Last Updated: 18 August 2002

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