Like so many other workers around the world affected by a COVID-19 lockdown, the team of scientists that operates the U.S. space agency (NASA) probe Curiosity — currently on the surface of Mars — has been forced to do its work from home.
Since March 20, the team, normally based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California, has been forced to direct the rover while working separately from their homes.
Programming each sequence of actions for the rover may involve 20 or so people developing and testing commands in one place while chatting with dozens of others located elsewhere. In anticipation of what they would need to make that happen from home, the team assembled headsets, monitors and other equipment in advanced.
Some adaptations were needed as well. Rover operators rely on special three-dimensional goggles to help them drive Curiosity over the Martian landscape. But those can only be run using JPL computers, so researchers were forced to rely on simple 3D glasses, similar to the kind you might get at a 3D movie, to view images on laptops.
The team found that it could do its job using multiple video conferences and messaging apps. Two days after they set up remotely, the team directed Curiosity to drill for a rock sample at a Martian location called “Edinburgh.”
Science operations team chief Carrie Bridge says she still checks in on the team to make sure things are running smoothly, but does so virtually, calling into as many as four videoconferences at the same time.