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Eyes on the Road: Inside the World of the "LTPs"
By Jeffrey Marlow

Every day of rover activity planning feels like a sprint: data comes in, and within a few hours, dozens of scientists and engineers have to interpret Curiosity's orientation, divine the health of the instruments, and construct a complicated jigsaw puzzle, squeezing an ambitious science program into the allotted time and data space.

With so much sol-to-sol attention focused on keeping Curiosity's proverbial head above water, it's easy to lose sight of the larger goals of the mission. Enter the Long Term Planners (LTPs), a group of scientists tasked with looking further down the road and bridging the gap between the big picture and the intricate brush strokes.

The LTPs conference in a dedicated room, set off from the more boisterous interactions of the Science Theme Groups. It's the inner sanctum of strategy, wallpapered with sheets of white butcher paper dedicated to particular issues, actual or anticipated. The room looks a little like the requisite scene in any tick-tock detective thriller where information is strewn across the wall, connected with superfluous bits of string. When things get really serious, the blinds are drawn.

Today, the blinds are open, and the room is relatively relaxed.

Scott McLennan, a Participating Scientist from SUNY Stony Brook University, is sitting at the far end of a long table, poring over recent data. He's one of the several senior scientists that comprises the LTP group, and when he steps into this room, his main focus shifts from the specific scientific projects he's personally pursuing to the larger aims of the mission.

As McLennan explains it, the LTP institution is necessary for the Mars Science Laboratory because "this mission is so complicated and the scientific potential is so great, that you really have to have a skeleton of the subsequent daily plans ready to go." The group plans out the broad science priorities for the next several days - "two or three days in some detail, five or six in a more general sense" - feeding their recommendations into the skeleton plans and tweaking the details as a given day's constraints and opportunities come into view.

LTPs hope to marry approaching targets with fundamental mission objectives. For example, a cross-calibration between two instruments is a mission priority that needs a target; if a promising rock is three days down the road, the LTPs will put it into the future plan and talk with the rover drivers to make it happen.

The result is a "Sol Tree" that is being constantly reinvented. Branch points reflect uncertainties - a target of unknown quality, or a data product that may be too large to beam back - that could dictate Curiosity's activities. Partially developed plans are also useful if the orbital caprices of daily data transfers restrict the science team's planning time. "It's nice to pre-plan some things for those days," says McLennan, allowing the rest of the science team to have a more efficient, streamlined experience.