Driving Spirit

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Spirit is stuck in the sand, but she's still doing science.
DCL

The scoop: Dr. Ashley Stroupe is a Staff Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Lead Rover Driver for the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. Ian O'Neill takes an hour of Ashley's time away from sending commands to Mars to speak with her about what it takes to drive a robot on a different planet and what's next for the embattled Spirit.

astroengine (11:06:05 AM): Right, I'm ready when you are Ashley, I have my coffee.

awsmars (11:06:17 AM): I'm looking forward to it, and ready to go.

astroengine (11:08:06 AM): Right, the first, and very obvious question I have is, how did you become a rover driver? Is "rover diver" the best way to describe your job at JPL?

awsmars (11:08:56 AM): "Rover Driver" is definitely what we call ourselves, and that really is a very good way to describe it. It's more than just "driving" though; we are responsible for controlling the robotic arm on the rover as well.

I was very lucky to get this job. I joined JPL only a month before the rovers landed, and at that time, of course, all the jobs were filled. The rovers were only supposed to last 3 months.

But when the rovers kept going, and many of the primary people had to move on to new projects, my background as a robotics engineer made me a perfect candidate to step into the project.

That was 9 months into the 3 month mission!

astroengine (11:11:05 AM): Wow, so you've been working on the MER for all of their operational lives?

awsmars (11:11:28 AM): For most of it, all but the first 8 months.

astroengine (11:12:22 AM): That's amazing, I bet you've grown quite attached to those robots. Are you responsible for one of the rovers? Or are you tasked to control both of them?

awsmars (11:14:13 AM): We all definitely get very attached to these rovers. We spent a large part of our time with them. They move and interact with the world, so it's hard not to think of them as anything other than part of the family.

I work with both the rovers, but mostly I work with Spirit. I am the lead driver for Spirit, which means I do a lot of the long-term planning for her.

astroengine (11:16:13 AM): I also think of Spirit as a "she", and when I write about Opportunity, for some reason I think "he." Is it normal to give these robots genders?

awsmars (11:16:58 AM): It certainly is normal for us, though we think of both of them as "she." Twin sisters — always trying to outdo each other in friendly competition.

astroengine (11:18:33 AM): That's really nice, I like to hear you think of the rovers as family. WALL-E is always conjured in my mind when I think of Spirit!

In fact, Spirit seems to have had a tougher time of the two, are you surprised she's been able to soldier on as long as she has?

awsmars (11:20:04 AM): Both of the rovers have had their share of challenges, but Spirit has been in a much tougher environment. Nothing surprises us anymore with Spirit, she just keeps turning bad situations into good ones. Every time one thing goes wrong, something else goes just right.

astroengine (11:23:13 AM): You're right there — she even managed to turn her broken wheel into a useful science tool! I love that.

So where do we stand with Spirit now? When I heard she was stuck, I thought it was the end of the line, but in actuality she's doing quite well isn't she?

awsmars (11:24:54 AM): Spirit did drift into a sand trap almost 2 months ago, and it's a rather complex situation. We are taking some time to do a lot of analysis and testing to figure out the best way to get her out of here. But, true to form, not only did Spirit get stuck in some very interesting soil — stuff we've seen nowhere else on Mars — but this spot is very windy and has cleaned most of the dirt off of Spirit's solar panels. She has more power now than she has in almost 4 years.

astroengine (11:26:11 AM): I bet that was a very bad day in the office when you found out she had become stuck. What was the mood in Rover HQ when you realized she was stranded? Were you on duty at the time?

awsmars (11:27:52 AM): I was on duty. Actually, the mood was not bad at all. With the broken wheel, drifting into sand traps has happened several times before. We all just assumed we'd dig ourselves out again. And our first attempts did seem to work somewhat. But it later became apparent that we needed a slightly different strategy for this situation. Still, nobody doubts that we'll get out and get back on the road.

astroengine (11:30:02 AM): Superb! My bets are on Spirit getting out of the trap. You mentioned that she has had a boost in power due to a wind cleaning event; do you intend to do any extra science with her while she's beached? I read somewhere that there might be the chance to do some astronomy with her camera at night due to the power surplus.

awsmars (11:31:26 AM): Yes, the power we're seeing on Spirit now is incredible! We have been doing a lot of science here — including very thorough analysis of all of the different soil types that we can see here. We have been doing a lot of overnight observations too, looking at the sky. We've recently taken some interesting pictures — Earth and Venus are right next to each other in the Martian sky right now.

astroengine (11:33:55 AM): That's amazing! Are those images online or are they currently being processed? Can't wait to see them.

Has there been any more cases of amnesia? Or has the memory issues cleared up a little? It was a worrying time at the start of the year when we were hearing that Spirit was suffering bouts of memory loss.

awsmars (11:34:44 AM): The raw images are, I believe, online — all the images end up online within a few hours of coming to Earth. But, the planets are such tiny specks; it will take some processing to really make them visible.

There have been no more cases of amnesia since those ones weeks ago. We're not entirely sure what caused it, or why it stopped happening. Sometimes these transient events occur, but they don't cause any lasting issues.

astroengine (11:35:34 AM): I'll take any image of the night sky from Mars — amazing to think we can peer back on Earth from an alien planet.

awsmars (11:36:15 AM): It is quite amazing — one of my favorite images is of Earth and Jupiter in the sky together. It reminds me just how amazing what we're doing is.

astroengine (11:38:29 AM): It is astounding, I'm very envious. Another thing I really like is how the orbiting Mars satellites can image the rovers from orbit. Isn't the MRO aiding the route planning for Opportunity as she trundles on her way to Endeavour Crater? I love the thought that we have robots helping other robots on a planet millions of miles away...

awsmars (11:40:10 AM): Yes, we are very fortunate to have MRO working with us. The high-resolution pictures we can get from orbit are providing us very detailed maps that we use to navigate. This is particularly important for Opportunity, since she is heading to a landmark we can barely see from the ground — Endeavour Crater. Those images have been instrumental in making sure that Opportunity stays on course and stays away from the more dangerous regions.

astroengine (11:41:53 AM): Superb, it looks like NASA is really getting the hang of exploring Mars!

Now, on a practical note, I'm intrigued as to how your rovers are controlled? I'm assuming you don't use a joystick and steering wheel!

awsmars (11:43:16 AM): We definitely can't use a joystick to dive them around. The signals can take 4-20 minutes to go one way between Earth and Mars. Also, we have one Deep Space Network that we have to use to communicate with all the spacecraft we have out there. That means we can only talk to each rover twice a day.

We put together a plan for one or more days of activities for the rovers at a time, and we send that whole plan to the rovers. Then at the end of each day, they call home and let us know how things went.

The rovers have to be very autonomous — they have to know how to keep themselves safe from hazards, low temperatures, low power, and they have to be able to fix those problems on their own as much as possible.

astroengine (11:46:08 AM): They are amazing little machines — to think they have such a high degree of automation gives me high hopes for future Mars exploration. Speaking of future missions, are you going to be working on the MSL? Or should I say "Curiosity."

awsmars (11:47:27 AM): I certainly hope to be working with MSL. I have already been involved as one of two rover drivers helping to assess the possible landing sites for how well the rover will be able to drive here. And I definitely plan to be doing operations once we land.

astroengine (11:49:08 AM): It would be great if the MER mission could still be operational to welcome the MSL to Mars! Do you think Either Spirit or Opportunity (or both) could still be working in 2011?

awsmars (11:49:43 AM): Well, another rover driver, Scott Maxwell, has a saying "Never bet against the rovers. It's a good way to lose money." I certainly wouldn't rule it out!

astroengine (11:51:32 AM): I suddenly have visions of the MSL roving day and night to meet up with Spirit to push her out of the sand trap — perhaps you should push for an MSL landing site near one of the MER rovers.

awsmars (11:52:14 AM): Something to keep in mind! Though hopefully, Spirit will have long since left this place — which is called "Troy" — behind!

astroengine (11:55:43 AM): Oh great, I can't wait till that day — I will be hosting a "Spirit is Free" party when that happens!

OK, finally, I wanted to get your opinion about some of the recent fuss surrounding what the rovers have 'seen' on Mars. The tabloid press and many conspiracy theorists thought they could see aliens and alien artifacts in the Martian landscape. Obviously they are just rocks, but do you think this kind of press boosts interest in the rovers? I suppose any publicity is good publicity!

awsmars (11:57:11 AM): Well, I have mixed feelings about that kind of press. It's a lot of fun to read the articles — some of them are very funny and well written. But at the same time I hope that they are just stirring up interest and that nobody takes them too seriously. Believe me, if we'd found anything like that on Mars, you wouldn't be able to get us to stop talking about it!

astroengine (11:59:27 AM): Absolutely. I've had to write a lot of articles debunking some of the crazy theories that have been popping up. On the one hand it seems to stir up interest, but on the other hand it seems to create unnecessary concern. My opinion is that you guys are doing some incredible science, why create conspiracy theories, when the real stuff is far more interesting!

awsmars (12:00:37 PM): I have to agree, I prefer the real science. Someday, hopefully, we'll find real life out there. I hope I'm there to see it!

astroengine (12:01:47 PM): Absolutely! I can't wait to see what all this methane is all about, let's see if the MSL can get to the bottom of that little mystery! So what's the next plan for stranded Spirit? Will we see another escape attempt soon?

awsmars (12:03:17 PM): We have probably a couple more weeks of testing ahead of us before we start trying things out on Mars again. But it won't be too long. The escape itself will probably also be a long, slow process. Spirit is an aptly named rover, though, and she'll pull it off.

astroengine (12:05:05 PM): Wonderful, she sure has a LOT of spirit, and a lot of that is down to her extended family at JPL. Well, best of luck with freeing Spirit and I hope Opportunity continues her marathon across the Martian surface. You have two very tough robots there!

awsmars (12:05:48 PM): We certainly do, and we have a really great team here on Earth. It's truly a privilege and an adventure to work on the Mars Exploration Rovers.

astroengine (12:06:47 PM): It certainly sounds like it. I'll be looking out for developments, it sounds like you have a lot more adventures to come. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, it's been a pleasure.

awsmars (12:07:16 PM): You're most welcome. It's been a lot of fun to talk about the best job in the world.

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