Safe Driving, Mars-style

Drive safely!

As soon as I turned 16 and got my driver's license, my parents greeted my every move with these two magical words. I couldn't set my hand on the doorknob without hearing them. Heading to school? "Drive safely!" Going out for coffee? "Drive safely!" Tossing the empty peanut butter jar into the recycling bin in the garage? "Drive safely!" It's entirely possible that my parents wired the door to chime "Drive safely!" every time I turned the handle, like some kind of teenager-sensing reverse-doorbell.

Vandi Verma would get along really well with my parents. As a Mars rover driver at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Verma helps plan the Opportunity rover's route across the Martian surface. Opportunity is currently exploring a 90-meter-wide crater called Santa Maria, and on January 25, Opportunity will celebrate seven (Earth) years on Mars--pretty good for a mission that was only supposed to last three months. One of the big factors in Opportunity's long-term survival: The safe driving of Verma and her colleagues.

The view from here: Opportunity's navigation camera looks out at the edge of the Santa Maria crater on January 10, 2001. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On NOVA scienceNOW's Can We Make It To Mars?, Verma explains how rover drivers manage to get the rovers to interesting places--boulder fields, steep-walled craters--while keeping them safe. As Verma told our producers (and as 16-year-old-me fruitlessly told my parents), "Safety's the biggest concern, but you can't be so risk averse that you don't go anywhere."

Last week, I checked in with Verma to find out where the rovers have been roving. The bad news: Spirit, Opportunity's near-twin, is stuck in the soft sand of a Martian plateau, and engineers on Earth haven't been able to communicate with it since March 2010. Why isn't Spirit answering our calls? Its dusty solar panels may not be gathering enough energy to keep it awake; if that's the case, engineers are hopeful that when the brightest days of the Martian year come around this March, Spirit might power back up. Power loss or cold-temperature damage may also have caused Spirit to "lose track of time," meaning that the rover won't know when to expect its scheduled calls from Earth.

Last summer, when Spirit was stuck in the Martian sand but still phoning home regularly, Verma helped build an Earthbound testbed in which engineers could test out rescue scenarios using a robotic Spirit body-double. (Check out this JPL video documenting how engineers plotted Spirit's escape.) With Martian winter on its way, the rover team was racing against time. They finally found an escape strategy that worked--on Earth, at least--but not soon enough. Before they could free Spirit, winter set in and the solar-powered rover's energy reserves dipped too low for it to continue to talk to Earth. Now that spring has sprung on Mars, the team has renewed attempts to talk to the rover.

As Verma points out, "One of the hardest things" about doing science on Mars "is just getting the rovers successfully on the surface of the planet," so once they're there, you want to make the most of it. "Even while stuck, Spirit made lots of scientific discoveries," says Verma, adding a diplomatic silver lining:  It can be difficult to convince data-hungry scientists to pull up stakes and continue to the next destination, but with the rover in park, there were no more arguments about when and where to move on.

Opportunity, though, is still rolling along. Verma and her colleagues are currently preparing for the conjunction of Mars and the Sun--that is, the period when Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun--during which communication with Opportunity will be limited. When I spoke to Verma earlier this week, the team was drawing up 18 days' worth of instructions to send off to Opportunity. Though the rover will hold one position over the course of the conjunction, it will continue gathering data on the local environment. Again with the silver linings: As Verma points out, because the radioactive element in Opportunity's Mössbauer spectrometer is so much weaker than it was when Opportunity first landed, the spectrometer takes measurements very slowly. (Think of it as a camera in which fast film has been traded for slow film; it now takes a longer exposure to produce the same picture.) The conjunction is a nice excuse to stay put long enough to let the spectrometer do its job.

While they're still planning Opportunity's moves, Verma and her colleagues are also preparing for their next vehicle: The next-generation Mars rover, Curiosity, which is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity. With that kind of size advantage, Curiosity will be able to roll right over boulders that would stop Spirit and Opportunity in their tracks. Curiosity will also be able to pick up rock and soil samples and examine them in on-board test chambers, a major upgrade over Spirit and Curiosity.

But first, we have to get there. So, as my parents would say: Drive safely!

Publicist's note: Can We Make It To Mars? will premiere Wednesday, January 19 at 8pm on most PBS stations. Please check your local listings to confirm when it will air near you.

User Comments:

I was watching the last 10 minutes
of NOVA - Science Now show - 1/25/2011.
It was interesting because they said for
the viewers to guess if the land rover
or a tortoise could win a race and how
long it would take - the tortise won by
21 minutes and the land rover by 33 minutes.
I guessed the land rover by 30 minutes.

Also, maybe the live tortise won because
of its skin and the protection of its
body parts (eyes, etc.).

On a different note, I am just wondering if all our current wild weather patterns are because of the earth's heating inside and we did have a rare eclipse in December. With all these floods and snow storms, maybe its influenced our earth's orbit?

Thank you.

Carol Ann Floyd

Greetings Kate
I just stopped by looking for profile information about Vandi Verma because I wanted to feature Dr.Verma as an extraordinary human being to inspire my readers at my blog HEALTH COACH.
I was introduced to Dr. Verma and her work in the NOVA scienceNOW episode about Mars. I thoroughly enjoyed that show!
Would it be possible to interview Dr. Verma?
Thank you for your further coverage of the Mars Rover mission.
Best Regards, Valerie

Hi Valerie, I'm so glad you enjoyed the profile of Vandi Verma! You should be able to get in touch with her via the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You can follow this link for more information:

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