NASA's Robotic Rover Drivers

Matt Heverly and Vandi Tompkins get up and go to work just like you do. But unlike you, they get to drive a robotic rover on Mars.


(Heverly, Tompkins (Curiosity robotic rover drivers) and Justin Lynn (mission controller) )

Heverly leads a team of 16 drivers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here. Together, they are responsible for steering a six-wheeled, plutonium-powered rover called Curiosity across the Red Planet’s Gale Crater...

“Driving” a rover might be a misleading term. There is no joystick or accelerator, for a start. Heverly and his teammates tell the vehicle where to go next by entering hundreds of computer commands. Also, the driving is not done in real time: During the Martian night, the team plans where to send Curiosity next and sends instructions through radio transmission as the Mars day begins...

The job can be grueling. For at least the first three months of Curiosity’s multiyear exploration, the drivers will be living and working on Mars time.

The Martian day, called a Sol, is longer than a day on Earth by 39 minutes and 35 seconds, which adds up quickly; morning on Earth becomes night on Mars within a couple of weeks. For the drivers, keeping this schedule is like moving two time zones to the west every three days, tossing them into a perpetual state of jet lag.

SF readers are already used to this scenario. In Oath of Fealty, the 1981 novel by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, a woman who works at home can have an unusual job:

"Meet Rachel Lief," Lunan said. "Ms. Lief is a bulldozer driver." Lunan paused for effect. "As you see, Ms. Lief doesn't look like your typical tractor driver..."

"But then," Lunan said, "not every bulldozer operator works on the Moon." The cameras followed the trim woman into another room, where there was a replica of a large tractor. It was surrounded by TV screens. One screen showed an astronaut sitting in the driver's seat, staring impatiently into the screen. A bleak, nearly colorless pit showed over his left shoulder.

"About time you got here," the astronaut said.
(Read more about the telepresence bulldozer)

An earlier example can be found in Cities in Flight, the legendary tetralogy of novels published in the 1950's by James Blish. Human operators drove teleoperated beetle cars in the depths of the atmosphere of Jupiter:

The scanner on the foreman's board was given 114 as the sector where the trouble was...

With a sigh, Helmuth put the beetle into motion. The little car, as flat-bottomed and thin through as a bedbug, got slowly under way on its ball-bearing races, guided and held firmly to the surface of the Bridge by ten close-set flanged rails. Even so, the hydrogen gales made a terrific siren-like shrieking between the vehicle and the deck...

While they shook the structure of the Bridge heavily, they almost never interfered with its functioning. And could not, in the very nature of things, do Helmuth any harm.

Helmuth, after all, was not on Jupiter - though that was becoming harder and harder for him to bear in mind. Nobody was on Jupiter...

...There was nothing further that he could do at the moment for the Bridge. He searched his control board - a ghost image of which was cast on the screen across the scene on the Bridge - for the blue button marked Garage, punched it savagely, and tore off his foreman's helmet.

Via Telegram.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 9/9/2012)

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