What’s it like to drive on Mars..?

Something for you to read while we all wait for the first pictures of Curiosity’s first drive…

If you’re a regular reader of my other blog, “The Road to Endeavour”, you’ll know that from time to time members of the Mars Exploration Rover team have very generously answered some questions for me, via email. I was hoping to be able to continue this tradition here on “Gale Gazette”, so I’m thrilled that Mars rover driver, Gale crater mapper and MSL traverse-planner extraordinaire Paolo Bellutta has agreed to “chat” to us here, this time, naturally, about Curiosity’s mission! 🙂

Thanks for talking to us, Paolo! First of all, where were you during EDL? And how did it compare to watching the MER EDLs?

I was with friends at Caltech where many MSL ops people were… Weather was perfect and while waiting for EDL the ISS flew over Pasadena, very bright since Sun had just set, it was an extra treat.  It was quite surreal to watch the EDL. I had my camera with me but it was so intense I forgot to take any pictures!

I had watched MER landing at home, not knowing and fully understanding the complexity of what was going on.  This time I had a much better understanding, all the HiRISE images I had analyzed for years were clear in my head.  It was a very tense moment.

When the first pictures came back of the landing site, what were your first impressions – both as one of the people who has got to drive the rover, and as a space enthusiast (which I know you are!)

That is funny.  I spent years analyzing the telemetry of Spirit and Opportunity so my eye got automatically switched to analyze the rear and front hazcam.  The rear haz told me right away we were pretty much flat (the horizon was flat) and that the terrain was not very rocky at all.  The Front Haz with the vehicle shadow right in front immediately told me the rover was pointed ESE (we landed close to 15:00 Mars Time) and confirmed that the soil was not that rocky at all. I was already working on Mars!

But when I saw the FHAZ without the lens cap my eye was caught by the sheer beauty of the image.  It struck me not as an engineer but for the photographic composition, rule of thirds respected, long shadows, as if Ansel Adams had nudged the vehicle during descent.

I have the door to my office already plastered with pictured from Hazcams, Navcams, MARDI.

You saw Curiosity in the “factory” at JPL as it were, many times, while she was being built. You probably touched it too. What was it like to see that first pic of the rover ON MARS, wheels on the ground, deck spattered with grit?

I did not get to touch it unfortunately but went down to the SAF (Spacecraft Assembly Facility) many times to see it being built and tested.  I don’t mind the dust and pebbles on the deck as long as the wheels are firmly on the ground! I’m sure they will all roll away once we start climbing Mt.Sharp.

Back to the landing zone at Gale Crater. We’ve now got pretty good pictures of the base of Mt Sharp, the “Promised Land” where she’l make ‘landfall’ in maybe a year’s time, if all goes well. You’ve mapped that terrain in great detail using HiRISE images. How does the “real thing” – the view from the ground – compare to orbital views? Do you think it will be easier to drive through? Harder? Were there any unpleasent or pleasent surprises on the first hi-res images?

I knew that the terrain where we would land was going to be easy for driving but I did not think it was going to be *that* easy.  Had we landed a bit more to the NW we would have had a maze of mesas and buttes to drive around but the real challenge will begin once we get to the base of Mt.Sharp.  Surely by then we will have honed our skills on how to drive carefully and successfully.

Obviously there’s no scientific rush to get Curiosity moving – the rocks and layers of Mt Sharp aren’t going anywhere! – and as someone very wise said to me, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”, but we are now just a few sols away from Curiosity’s historic first drive. It’s going to be slow and short, not a mad dash – imagining that first drive I can’t help thinking of that sequence from the first Star Trek movie, when the Enterprise gracefully leaves Spacedock! – but are thedrivers itching to hit the road? I think I would be…

I think there are many that feel like racing horses at the starting line.  We do care about science of course, that’s why we are there but I want to see more of Gale.  Patience is a virtue, not only on Earth but especially on Mars.

Once Curiosity leaves her landing site and heads for Glenelg, how will driving her be different from driving the MERs? Faster? Slower? More cautious?

The first few drives will be very, very conservative, a few meters at the beginning and increasing our drive distance as we get a better feeling and exercise our sequencing skills.  We have learned a lot by driving MER but we want to be cautious.

The dust dunes are the most obvious feature in the landscape shown inthe Mastcam pictures, surrounding the base of Mt Sharp almost like a moat around a castle…

Can you tell yet if you can drive Curiosity *over* those dunes, or if you’ll have to go around them? Obviously you must have learned a lot about ‘dune riding’ from driving Opportunity across Meridiani…

The dark dunes we see from orbit, in the MARDI, and even in the FHAZ are partly driveable.  They are really tall, some are 10-12 meters tall, some have faces up to 25 degrees steep but we should be able to drive between them.  These dunes are active dunes not ancient like Meridiani’s so there will be definite differences in the soil mechanics properties.  I don’t think we will see then up close and personal very soon unfortunately.

I know it’s a long way away, but once we reach the Promised Land, just how dramatic do you think the scenery will be? The pics of the base of Mt Sharp show lots of mesas and buttes, and there’s a lot of breathless talk about “spectacular” views, but what do you think we’ll see? Is it possible to compare it to any locations on our planet?

There is a spot near Monument Valley called Valley of the Gods (see picture) that comes to mind.

I’m sure the geology is completely different but that is how dramatic I imagine will be to views climbing Mt.Sharp.

Finally, can you try to explain what it feels like to sit there, in your chair at JPL, and make an incredible machine, at the cutting edge of our technology, move on Mars? What thoughts go through your head? Do you ever allow yourself a moment to sit back and think “Oh my god, I’m driving a spacecraft on another world..”?

It is pretty exhausting.  It is like writing code, critical code that has to work the first time, you have limited time to do it and you have only one chance.  For anyone who has used a compiler they know exactly the feeling, for those who haven’t it is like having a job interview every day.

I typically don’t think about my sequence running on Mars, I usually think about Mars when I talk to people and explain what I do for a living.  It brings back the joy and the excitement of exploring Mars.

Many thanks for talking to us, Paolo!

You are welcome.


2 thoughts on “What’s it like to drive on Mars..?

  1. […] NACHTRAG: Die Spuren in 3D, mit einem Stück Aeolis Mons, der Rover ist zufrieden – und ein Interview zur Fahrplanung. Gefällt mir:Gefällt mirOne blogger likes […]

  2. What a great job! I wonder if they have any special means to free the rover from a sand trap (that arm sounds pretty strong). I guess the wheels are much bigger than Spirit’s, so fingers crossed there’ll be no such problems. Would be cool if the powered descent vehicle had a camera to take a snap of Curiosity roving about in the distance. Cool blog btw!

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