Drive 15 minutes northeast of Los Angeles to the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab campus in Pasadena, California, and you might run into an unexpected resident: a nearly exact replica of the Curiosity rover, which is currently tens of millions of miles away exploring the surface of Mars.
JPL sprawls across a sunny, leafy campus that is quiet until you step inside any of its laboratories. Since its roots in 1936 at the California Institute of Technology among a few students interested in rockets, the lab has grown to be NASA’s main location for spacecraft construction. The monkey-like RoboSimian robot, which is competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, calls it home. And nearly any NASA craft currently making its way through space sends its data back to JPL.
Like the Mars rovers that came before it, Curiosity was built and tested at JPL over a period of seven years before taking off for the red planet in 2011. It was built in the same building as the spacecraft that were the first to reach the moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The crew that landed the rover on Mars in 2012 did so from a small room tucked into JPL’s main mission control building.
Even though it is now millions of miles from Earth, Curiosity’s connection to JPL is still a daily matter. Every time NASA needs to test a new task for Curiosity to undertake, JPL pulls the rover’s twin out of its garage and takes it for a spin around a Mars-like patch of red dirt known as the Mars Yard. The JPL team has used it to experiment with drilling on an incline and what problems to expect from the wear and tear Curiosity has experienced on its wheels (the conclusion was there is nothing to worry about).
A few buildings away from the testing site, mission manager Rick Welch sat at the back of a surprisingly sterile network of desks and offices that make up Mars Science Laboratory headquarters. His description of the design and landing stages paint just how precious NASA considers the rover’s time to be, and why the facilities at JPL are so necessary.
Welch has watched as the rover repeatedly discovered signs that water once existed on Mars. He has felt the stress of hardware and software failures. And yet Curiosity never ceases to surprise him.
Here is the condensed version of our conversation:
Signe Brewster: Has Curiosity’s time on Mars played out how you expected?
Rick Welch: Every mission I have made my predictions of what’s going to happen and I’ve been wrong. This rover is a hundred million plus miles away … and there’s a lot going on that we don’t know and there’s always a big delay in the information we have. Scary times, there’s always the scary times. There’s no doubt they will happen again. That’s the important part of trying to make every day count.
Some of us have been a little frustrated at times because we forget why we had a rover in the first place, right? We have a rover because we want to go around to different science targets, but it takes time to get there. Say the next thing we see from the rover that we’re interested in is 2 kilometers away. And you say, “Great! Is that next week?” Well, ideally, if everything was perfect and there was a paved road, yeah, then it would be next week. But Mars isn’t like that. It’s sort of like backpacking, where you’re always like, “Once I get to the top of that ridge.” And then you see another ridge and another ridge.
It just goes back to this unpredictable nature of the mission and these types of missions of discovery. You’ve got to be rewarded for what you find every day and understand just because I thought I was going to be over there in two months, that’s not really the important part. The important part is to live every day the best you can and get the most science done.
The cost and size of computers and other hardware have dropped dramatically in recent years. Will those advances show up on a rover anytime soon?
I think that’ll be a good opportunity to buy into all that technology as it comes our way. It’s interesting because in some regards, you look at (Curiosity’s) computer and you’d say, “Gee, my iPhone is more powerful than the computer.” Because we are flying these radiation hardened computers, they tend to lag commercial desktops by five or ten years. And so part of our technology really isn’t that high tech. Its kind of slow and basic C coding.
Some of our older spacecraft had multiple computer systems that were sort of specialized. We built a special computer to do guidance and navigation control and another special computer to do pointing of antennas. … And that was kind of expensive because you had multiple computers.
So in the last 10 years, we’ve really gone to this one computer with lots of software on that one computer to run everything. I think that has had its own challenges because then everyone is trying to use that one computer and it’s sort of the one resource. So this idea of going back to a more distributed control because there are these very low cost, low power processors is good … especially for building new things.
What do you think about sending people to Mars?
That would be great! I mean, it’s such a big challenge going from what we do focused here at JPL, which is the robotic exploration, to actually then bring all the other survival stuff that you need to get people there. I hope that NASA and everybody here in the U.S. … vote to support because it would be a great extension of our presence here in the solar system. It’s a big investment, but personally I think its worth it. It … helps push all our technology forward by doing that.
What is your hope for future rover missions?
More rovers! I’ve been lucky enough to be a rover guy my whole time here with JPL and certainly hope we do more rovers. We’re now working on a project for the Mars 2020 (mission), trying to build a very similar rover and leverage the design we have for Curiosity. I would like to see us to go to the surface of other planets, Europa, back to the moon. I’d love to work on a lunar mission myself because they’re different challenges. Mars is great and there’s still lots to be learned there, and I hope to see more Mars rovers go. But, you know, it’d be fun to do lunar rovers. There’s good science to do there, a good precursor for people to go to the moon again. There’s other places out there that would be so cool to go to.