I’ve been training to drive the Mars rover Curiosity since last fall, and June 1st was my first day on the job. Learning to drive a Mars rover is an intensive process. We can’t just joystick it around, the distance between Earth and Mars means that round trip communication times can be over 40 minutes. We have to learn a language that the rover understands along with the specialized software used to assemble sets of instructions. We only talk to the rover once a day, and we may only hear from it a couple times every 24 hours. In an ideal case, we send commands to the rover before going home, and find out what actually happened after coming into work the next day.
I’m currently certified as Strategic Rover Planner, meaning I’m qualified to help out while driving instructions are being generated, but don’t actually drive the rover yet (although I’m working on that!). My tasks are varied but typically include things like making sure the rover is parked on stable terrain, checking that we get the images needed for future drives, some route planning, and making sure the instruments are being operated safely.
Nothing particularly out of the ordinary happened on my first day as far as driving on Mars goes. I performed my checks, helped out where needed, and the day went smoothly. The next morning I woke up and went to work, excited to see if the first plan I had been a part of executed successfully (or more accurately, I logged in from my apartment, even the rover operations team is working from home right now).
Curiosity had successfully completed its commands and drove a few hundred feet up to a small rise to get a better view of the terrain ahead. I opened up our image viewer and scrolled through the 3D pictures to see what was ahead of us. I realized that no one else on Earth has seen this vista before, no one else on Earth could have seen it before. For the first time, I was exploring Mars, and was part of the team that makes ambition missions of discovery like Curiosity happen.
My journey to Mars didn’t start in the fall of 2019, but in August of 2012. I was a semester away from graduating college with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and was at the end of an internship with an engineering firm in Kansas City. They had made me a job offer but I turned it down, I had my sights on a different future. As a kid I learned how to use telescopes and built model rockets. In 9th grade I gave a presentation on why I wanted to be an aerospace engineer when I grew up. And at the end of that summer, without really knowing what I was getting into, I made the decision to pursue the career that I had always wanted.
The last week of my internship I slept in a friend’s basement because I had to move out of my summer housing. I don’t remember the exact day of the week, but do recall that the landing of Curiosity was going to happen late at night. I didn’t get the chance to watch live due to some confusion with a wi-fi password but I still followed all the coverage, saw the videos, and was ecstatic about what had happened. There was a new explorer on Mars.
The following weekend I drove a few hours across the plains to return to school and finish my last semester of undergrad. At the time I really had no idea what I was getting myself into and had a lot of uncertainty in my future, but I knew I had made the right decision.
On July 30th (as of the writing of this article), another robotic emissary named Perseverance will launch towards the red planet. On the outside it looks much like Curiosity but differs in many key ways upon inspection. There are more cameras, including a couple that are zoomable and can take higher resolution images. The wheels are thicker and more durable which will avoid some of the wheel wear issues that Curiosity faces. Perseverance hosts a whole new set instruments, including a ground penetrating radar, a laser imager, an x-ray spectrometer (a method to determine what rocks are made out of), a weather station, and a special device that will generate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere (super useful for when we send humans to Mars). Oh, and there’s a helicopter drone tucked under the rovers belly that will deployed once the rover lands.
In addition to all that, Perseverance carries a drill capable of cutting out small cylinders of rock and sealing them in metal tubes. The tubes will be left on Mars to be picked up in the future by another robot, launched into orbit, and brought back to Earth by yet another spacecraft. Once here, will study the samples using the full arsenal of tools we have on Earth, which is significantly more than we can send to Mars. Those samples may help us answer questions like how much water did Mars harbor in its past? How habitable was/is the planet? And ultimately, were conditions on Mars ever right for life to develop?
All those parts together are known as Mars Sample Return. The general idea dates back nearly 50 years with a Soviet proposal in the 1970s. A similar concept gathered momentum in the U.S. through the mid 1990s but hasn’t been implemented yet due to a number of considerations including political, budgetary, and technological. Sample return is also not a quick mission to achieve. From start to finish, it will likely be at least a decade before any samples are returned to Earth for us to study.
What’s important to realize is that this ambitious mission starts now, with the upcoming launch of Perseverance. In this context, Perseverance is much more than a robot on Mars. It is the first step in a mission of exploration and discovery that is generational in scale. Many scientists and engineers have spent decades of their life working up to this point. Many more will have their careers defined by whatever Perseverance finds on the surface and eventually the samples that are returned to Earth. By the time it’s all said and done, we may even have a better idea of what it means to be human. In a world dominated by hourly news feeds and twitter alerts, I find it comforting to know that such ambitious missions are still possible.
I like to imagine that when Perseverance reaches Mars on Feb 18th, there will be individuals watching like I did. Perhaps contemplating their place in the future, and realizing that there’s more to life than working a typical 9 to 5. And I sure hope you decide to join us.
Evan Hilgemann is a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You might also enjoy Explore & Observe, his email newsletter on modern day exploration of earth and space.
This work was done as a private venture and not in the author’s capacity as an employee of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. Any views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of NASA, JPL, or the California Institute of Technology