Writeup – Craig Leff – Working on Mars

You could make the argument that Craig Leff is technically younger than his driving licence says he is. At least, that’s the story on Mars anyway, for reasons I’ll go in to later…

As a massive fan of spaceflight in general, I was really looking forward to this talk. We all watch the events unfold on television during the big landing sequences, but after that I would imagine that most of us have no idea what happens on a day-to-day basis. As Craig previously worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California on both the Mars Exploration Rovers, and the latest Curiosity rover, he was ideally placed to let us in on how things are done.

He started by briefly explaining rover technology, and went into the constraints that make them more difficult than just sitting a person at a joystick with a screen and letting them pull wheelies and doughnuts on the Martian soil. Time delays of between 10 and 20 minutes due to the large distances involved are one problem, necessitating a rover that is partly autonomous as manually controlling it with no real timely feedback would be nigh on impossible. But the slightly longer Martian day is another factor. Craig explained how the teams of scientists and engineers involved with the projects lived on “Martian time” – where a day is 24 Earth hours and 39 minutes long – for months at a time. This puts both physical and mental strain on everybody, which can affect their family lives, all in the name of science – and what could possibly be wrong with that? This also meant that everyone had to wear special watches that ran 40 minutes a day slower than everybody else’s, so going off Craig’s watch, he’s younger than he really is!

The detail involved in planning each day’s events was staggering, and Craig was able to condense this very complicated series of events into a very enjoyable 50 minute summary for us, from looking at the previous day’s events, to making a timeline for what would happen that day, then testing and simulating it, and finally sending the commands to the rover itself.

Rovers seem to be more popular with the public than landers or orbiters, probably because of the role of robots in popular culture. We anthropomorphise them and give them personalities, and their popularity could be seen not just in the way the audience enjoyed Craig’s talk, but also in the way people engaged with him in the pub afterwards. Space exploration is always something that enthrals people, and there are lots of exciting missions coming up to various planets that are worth checking out.