MISSION UPDATES | September 5, 2022

Sols 3582-3585: Labor of Love

Written by Michelle Minitti, Planetary Geologist at Framework
This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3580.

This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera onboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 3580. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

It is tempting to list off the multitude of science observations the Curiosity team planned for the four sols that cover the Labor Day weekend in the US - an astonishing 15 targets, hundreds of Mastcam images, dozens of RMI images, and more than 2 Gb of science data collected. But rather than writing my usual summary of our activities for a plan, it feels more apt given the holiday to focus on the people who made it happen - the kind of people who have been showing up for 10 years to make all the science Curiosity does possible.

Downlink leads like Trinh and Matt, and localization scientists like Tim and Scott give us the data to make any new planning possible. They figure out things like: just where did our drive end up? what rocks can we reach with the arm? what targets are safe for ChemCam to shoot? where can we drive next? These folks quite literally set the scene for the plan ahead.

Scientists like Aster, Amelie, and Lucy show up to see the new scene, quickly digest what is there: what matters to building our understanding of this place? what is interesting? what is new? They suggest observations to capture those targets. Scientists like Bill and Alex show up that have been keeping track of the structures and buttes around us for hundreds or even thousands of sols. They suggest observations that build on previous ones, digging into features and structures we only now see as we approach this topography. Scientists like Mike and Mark show up to ensure our dedicated watch on the Martian atmosphere and environment continues, creating a systematic dataset of surface conditions that builds a modern climate record for Mars. Led by our science theme leads Jeff and Claire, everyone has to rapidly triage and prioritize their observations, and make trades against how much time and power are available in the plan.

The uplink leads like Deirdra, Natalie, and Cindy are magic mixtures of scientists and engineers that know how to make the most out of their instruments’ observations and write the commands to make them happen. They work hand in hand with the scientists to idealize all the desired observations to idealize their desired observations: is this at the right time of day? is this enough coverage? are these images of sufficient resolution? Often, multiple iterations are required to plan a scientifically-valuable, practically-executable observation. The uplink leads translate science desires to camera parameters and laser settings, and translate camera parameters and laser settings to code that travels through the Deep Space Network for the rover to execute.

Rover planners like Evan and Ashley are the engineers who design every motion of rover hardware. They figure out how to position the DRT, MAHLI, and APXS - located on a 50 kg turret at the end of a 2 meter long robotic arm - mere centimeters over a rock target. They figure out how to drive safely across jumbled, rocky terrain with wheels that have holes you could put your hand through, and end up in the next scientifically interesting spot. They model and remodel and tweak and change a dizzying array of arm angles, slip limits, and drive paths that ultimately give Curiosity life and motion on Mars.

All of it is buttoned up by the uplink team at JPL, who keeps tabs on everything related to rover health and functionality from our communication passes with the orbiters, to battery and current levels, to the amount of data storage available. Witnessing Nicky, the Science Planner in charge of checking and confirming every action in the plan during our main planning meeting today, was like watching a track athlete in a 5000 meter race - perfect, unrelenting pacing resulting in victory (a successful plan).

I could only list a small fraction of the names of those on shift today to build Curiosity’s weekend plan. Please know, though, that every time you visit the MSL website, or see images from Curiosity on Twitter or Insta, that a team like today’s was responsible for them. It is our collective labor of love, executed on a mountain in a crater on a planet a hundred million miles away.