After eight months of centralized work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Cornell members of the Mars Exploration Rover mission will contraol the project’s scientific planning from campus in Ithaca, N.Y.
The relocation resulted from the mission’s unexpected success. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers functioned for longer than the 90 sols, or Martian days, NASA engineers anticipated because the effect of fine dust damage to the solar panels powering the twin rovers was far less than predicted.
“The primary mission was supposed to be 90 sols, and — holy smokes — we’re planning sol 303 for Spirit,” deputy principal investigator Ray Arvidson said.
Steve Squyres, a Cornell University astronomy professor and principal investigator for the Mars rovers’ missions, said the move has not significantly affected the scientific team’s work.
Video-conferencing and NASA-developed software allow science team members to communicate during live planning meetings once a day per rover.
“After you do the same thing side-by-side with people for 200, 250 days, it becomes familiar enough that you can do it by video,” Squyres said.
Arvidson said distributing the work was necesaary to allow the team members, many of whom are professors, to keep their jobs and rejoin their families.
Squyres said the distributed operations can also enrich scientists’ home institutions.
“It makes it easier to involve Cornell students,” he said. “We have grad students and a number of undergrads working on flight ops.”
Arvidson said the lessons learned during this mission will make future long-term projects easier. He said the model of engineering and science team members building relationships during centralized training sessions and then dispersing will be applied to future projects, including NASA’s two-year Mars Science Laboratory program, scheduled for a 2009 launch.