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A Day in the Life of a Martian Scientist

February 08, 2004

Dr. Jim Rice Astrogeologist studying Mars-like features on Earth at the top of a volcano in Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Dr. Jim Rice
Astrogeologist studying Mars-like features on Earth at the top of a volcano in Mauna Kea, Hawaii
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Wearing two watches, one for Mars time on the left wrist and one for Earth time on the right wrist, Jim Rice works in three time zones on two different planets simultaneously. Jim is a rover science team member with a Ph.D. in Astrogeology from Arizona State University.

"Days of the week on Earth don't matter anymore because we're living on Mars time with the rover twins," says Jim in his strong Alabama accent. He beams: "Most of us on the rover team are averaging about 4-5 hours of sleep a night. I don't know if it's a.m. or p.m., but I'm loving every minute of it!"

For at least the next three months, with all of his belongings packed away in a storage unit in beautiful Scottsdale, Arizona, Jim lives in corporate housing in Pasadena, California like many of his fellow science team members from around the world.

"The furnished apartments are nice and a lot of great restaurants are nearby, but I haven't really had a chance to check them out yet," Rice shrugs without much disappointment. For the passionate scientists and engineers working on the rover mission, digging into a hot dinner is not as exciting as digging into the new data from Mars every day.

In the science operations area at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the windows have been outfitted with special black screens to prevent daylight from taunting any team members into realizing their Mars night is really Earth's day. Scientists and engineers make every second of the mission count by sticking to a fine-tuned schedule to ensure their efficiency.

Dr. John Callas Mars Exploration Rover Science Manager
Dr. John Callas
Mars Exploration Rover Science Manager
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Shifting Schedules 40 Minutes Every Day

Mars rotates approximately 40 minutes slower than Earth every day. Since each rover operates when the sun is pumping energy onto its solar panels, the slower rotation of Mars boils down to a longer day in which the mission team can use a science instrument, drive a little farther, or send more data to Earth.

Thus, ambitious rover team members have chosen to extend and alter their schedules 40 minutes every day to stay in sync with their twins' day and night schedules on Mars. One day, for example, team members might come in to work at 9:00 a.m. The next day, they'd come in at 9:40 a.m., and the next day at 10:20 a.m., and so on. They end up running multiple laps around Earth's 24-hour schedule throughout the mission.

Scientists and engineers utilize every possible second of sunlight on Mars and squeeze in as much action as possible with the rovers. To make life for the rover team ever more fulfilling and confusing, Spirit and Opportunity live on opposite sides of Mars. That means, when one rover is sleeping, the other is awake, putting the rover team in business 24/7 - or 24:40/7!

Like all good haggard parents with newborns, the rover team does whatever it takes to listen to their twins' calls around the clock, provide them with the information they need to survive, and steer them in the right direction during every waking moment. The team has multiple shifts of people to cover the rovers 'round the clock.

"Every day, all day, scientists and engineers are under pressure to utilize finite energy resources as efficiently as possible to make every single day of this 90 day mission as rich and fulfilled as possible," explains Dr. John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover Science Manager.

"We don't want the rover just sitting on Mars in the daytime twiddling its thumbs, so we assembled the best scientists from around the globe to utilize their instincts in field geology and remote sensing. Then we retrained them over the last two years to be experts in seeing Mars through the eyes and instruments of the rover," John recounts.

Wendy Calvin participating in a rover science team meeting.
Wendy Calvin participating in a rover science team meeting.
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While the Rover is Sleeping

Multiple times every day, team members learn something new about their location on Mars and they must quickly adapt their priorities about what instruments they want to use or where they want to drive. Decisions depend on what new information they receive hour by hour.

"This mission is a new paradigm in robotic space exploration," John says with a smile. Scientists take in data sent directly to Earth from the rovers and data collected through flyovers of the Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor orbiters, so they're getting new information to build upon three or four times a day. "Historically, scientists could plan out in advance what they wanted to do over the course of their mission, but we had to create a highly trained, nimble team to do science quickly.

"Within only a few hours of nighttime on Mars, our team must process several hundred images and other data that come down to Earth in pieces at different times from different sources. We turn the bits of data -- zeros and ones -- into higher level products like mosaics and three-dimensional images almost instantly, and then the scientists must assimilate all that information to make educated decisions as to what to do next with the rovers."

In general, the scientists prepare Spirit and Opportunity's "To Do" lists for the next day while the rover is sleeping on Mars. Scientists use high-end workstations with extraordinary visual graphic tools to interact with the data at a breakneck speed. Individual scientists analyze the data as it comes down and discuss their theories and insights with the six science instrument teams and in five expert theme groups, which range from "Soils" and "Mineralogy" groups to "Atmospheres" and "Geology."

Larry Crumpler (center) and fellow Science Team Members at Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) meeting.
Larry Crumpler (center) and fellow Science Team Members at Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) meeting.
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Rapid-fire Decisionmaking

After a few hours of interpreting the new data, proposing science hypotheses, and attending context meetings about the bigger, global picture of Mars, the entire team assigned to Spirit or Opportunity gathers in the Science Downlink Assessment room, which is packed with super-sized screens that the whole team can see. These screens enable the team to work together in discussing their initial analysis and results of new data.

Over the hum of multiple high-end computers, team members casually, but systematically, pass a microphone around the room to the different team leads (for soil, atmosphere etc.). Each is responsible for giving their team's opinions and recommendations for the full team's consideration.

Immediately following a rover health status update from an engineer, the various science instrument teams and theme groups discuss their list of priorities and a path of possible avenues in which to do the highest priority science next. Do they want to stay and analyze a certain rock with a different instrument or do they want to put the petal to the metal? Those sorts of trade-offs to consider keep the meetings lively.

There's literally no rest for the weary. Following the Downlink Assessment meeting, the scientists swiftly reconvene into their separate teams to come up with details on what activities they want the rover to perform. Right after that, the smaller teams join once again for the bigger two-hour Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) meeting with the rover engineers. There they tell the engineers what they would like to accomplish, and hone their priorities into a well-choreographed, step-by-step activity plan that will be built into commands. Science team members must know how much power it takes to operate their instrument and how much energy will be left to transmit data results. Finding a balance is important because there are only so many hours a day on Mars that the rover can do science and can communicate with Earth.

Matt Wallace (center), Opportunity Mission Manager, and rover engineers.
Matt Wallace (center), Opportunity Mission Manager, and rover engineers.
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Passing the Baton to the Engineers

It's critical that all science priorities and negotiations of power, energy, and time allocations are settled in time so the engineers can create the commands and beam them up to the rovers before the rovers start their days.

If the science team doesn't complete their desired sequence of events in time, the engineers can't build the commands in time and won't be able to transmit new requests to the rover. In that worst-case scenario, engineers would send up a pre-canned sequence of science requests as a back-up, but that's not the best use of the rover.

Jim Rice at age nine, launching his lifelong dream of a career in rocket science.
Jim Rice at age nine, launching his lifelong dream of a career in rocket science.
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Nobody Works an 8-hour day on Mars

The nap rooms that the management at JPL provides for the scientists and engineers working on Mars time are rarely used. "Mars is not the place to be if you want to work at a 9 to 5 job," Jim avows. "To be on this mission, you have to be kind of nuts and have a passion and dedication for learning. My work and my hobby are the same thing, and I've wanted to do this since I was 7-years-old, so I enjoy working this hard. All of our team members are cut from the same cloth."

NASA's rover mission is filled with scientists and engineers who are altering their natural circadian rhythms to live on Mars time and sacrificing their dining desires, sleep, and homes to work together as a team. Everyone from the security guards to the engineers for the rover mission are on 12-hour shifts, and the scientists tend to pore over new data hours before and after their shifts officially begin and end.

"I think the desire to explore is encoded in human genes. We are not the fastest runners or swimmers or strongest in the animal kingdom, but our intelligence and curiosity allow us to be the greatest explorers on and off the Earth," Jim expounds. "I'd wager that every human being on Earth has looked up at the night sky and wondered -- at least once -- what all those stars are about, how we got on this Earth, or if we are alone in the universe."
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