Telecommuting to the Red Planet

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For researchers that control spacecraft on other planets, working remotely is nothing new. ASU scientists working on the upcoming NASA Perseverance rover and the Odyssey orbiter discuss collaborating from home on a project millions of miles away.

ASU researchers studying Mars bring a different meaning to "remote working." Illustration by Ashley Quay

By Pete Zrioka

July 20, 2020

When remote working became the norm for many during the coronavirus pandemic, few professions were as prepared for the change as space researchers. After all, many of them are sending commands and receiving information from instruments or spacecraft already “remote” – located millions of miles away!

At Arizona State University, space researchers also regularly collaborate with scientists all over the world for their work, so many of them were already well acquainted with teleworking setups. 

“I think we're a bit lucky that our jobs are intrinsically remote operations,” says Professor Jim Bell, a planetary scientist in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “Although we all wish we could be in person with the cameras and rovers, we have a lot of practice working with each other remotely.”

Bell has 25 years of experience working with NASA on Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity and is currently working on the upcoming Mars 2020 mission’s Perseverance rover. Launching later this summer, the Mars 2020 mission will carry Perseverance to the Red Planet, equipped with seven instruments designed to study Mars’ habitability, search for signs of past microbial life, collect and cache samples, and prepare for possible human exploration.

Among those instruments is Bell’s Mastcam-Z, a mast-mounted camera system with a zoom capability. Bell serves as the principal investigator on the instrument, which will function as the main “eyes” of Perseverance. When the rover lands on Mars in early 2021, it will use Mastcam-Z’s panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability to identify samples for collection and search for signs of life.

Looking for a sign

“We're going to an ancient delta, a geologically exciting environment picked on purpose,” says Bell of the landing site. “It’s among the highest probability places anywhere on the planet for preserving evidence of past biologic activity, if there was any.”

Though Bell notes that finding a macroscopic fossil on the Martian surface is highly unlikely, there is rare fossil evidence from Earth's early life history that gives him some hope that Perseverance will turn up secondary evidence of life. Such evidence could, for example, mimic stromatolites — rounded layered mineral deposits formed in shallow water by the trapping and binding of sediments by microbial communities. Stromatolites provide some of the earliest evidence of life on Earth. 

“If we saw anything like that on Mars, it would be spectacular, but not total slam dunk proof,” says Bell. “We'd have to bring some of those samples back, we'd have to do detailed chemistry and isotope work, the same kind of work that's done by the Earth Precambrian life research community.”

Eye in the Martian sky

While Perseverance’s mission on Mars won’t start until early 2021, other ASU-run instruments are already collecting data about the planet now. 

ASU’s Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS, is one of three instruments on board the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter. NASA’s longest-lasting Mars spacecraft, Odyssey launched from Kennedy Space Center on April 7, 2001 and arrived at the Red Planet on October 24, 2001. Orbiting every two hours, Odyssey maps the amount and distribution of minerals on the Martian surface. A multi-wavelength camera, THEMIS contributes to this mission by mapping rock mineralogies and detecting heat, which informs scientists about the physical and thermal properties of rocks on Mars’ surface.

Designed by principal investigator Phillip Christensen, Regents Professor of geological sciences in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, THEMIS is run by a team of three ASU researchers: Kelly Bender, Jon Hill and Kimm Murray. When THEMIS operations shifted to remote working, both Bender and Hill said the change didn’t affect their day-to-day work much.

The THEMIS team is used to teleconferencing with colleagues from the University of Arizona, who run the Gamma Ray Spectrometer aboard Odyssey, as well as teams from Lockheed Martin in Denver and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who control the Odyssey spacecraft itself. 

“We have multiple meetings every week where the entire team meets over Zoom and discusses our near-term plans for Odyssey,” says Hill, one of THEMIS’ mission planners. “So really, the only thing that's changed is everyone has a different background in Zoom.”

One background that didn’t change was Bender’s. A research specialist senior who’s worked on THEMIS since launch in 2001, Bender is a seasoned telecommuter, working primarily from her home office since a kidney transplant 17 years ago.

“Having the transplant completely changes your life, your energy level,” she says. This is truer than ever, as the immunosuppressant medication she takes puts her at great risk during the pandemic.

Another challenge for the team has been ensuring they were able to send commands to the instrument. To communicate with THEMIS, the team uses the NASA Deep Space Network, which is comprised of three spacecraft communication facilities located roughly equidistant around the Earth, in Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain and Canberra, Australia.

“That way we always have at least one that can point to Mars,” says Hill.

Despite obstacles, operations on THEMIS didn’t slow when everyone shifted to remote work, according to Bender and Hill.

“When you're doing spacecraft operations, there's no weekend, no evening, no holiday — you’re on call 24/7, 365 days a year,” says Bender.

To complicate the situation, THEMIS also recently turned its attention toward one of Mars’ moons, Phobos

“Since we're the only IR camera orbiting Mars, we are the only ones who can get temperature data,” says Hill.

Temperature readings of Phobos as it heats up and cools down could provide insight into the composition and physical properties of the moon, and possibly settle a long-standing debate about the moon’s origin.

“There's two competing theories: one is that Phobos is a captured asteroid that wandered a little too close to Mars and got caught,” says Hill. “The other possibility is that Phobos is actually a piece of Mars itself. As asteroids impacted Mars very early in its history, they may have thrown enough rock out into space that it was able to coalesce into a little moon.”

Along with imaging one of the Red Planet’s closest neighbors, much remains to be learned about the Martian surface. A geologist by training, Bender tracks transient processes on Mars such as fluctuations in the polar ice caps, cloud cover and frost.

“The wind is one of the most active processes right now on Mars, scouring the surface and lofting dust into the air” she says. “I'm most interested in identifying wind related transient features in our images.”

Bender’s main responsibility is commanding THEMIS. She also manages a ranked database of every image produced by THEMIS, so researchers can find images based on quality. In addition, she runs online outreach efforts, posting an image of the day to communicate the findings of THEMIS to the public.

Social outreach in the age of social distancing

While Bender continues the steady stream of THEMIS outreach via the THEMIS website and Flickr, other efforts to get space science into the hands of the public have proven difficult in the midst of a pandemic. 

One of Hill’s primary outreach efforts is a giant, walkable map of the Martian surface developed from more than 24,000 images captured by THEMIS over the last two decades. Roughly the size of a basketball court, the map has been walked on by thousands of people and even made a trip to the National Mall last year.

“I think we had somewhere around half a dozen schools lined up for the second half of this spring semester and a couple that we were going to do over the summer,” says Hill, who had been working on a larger, football field-sized map before events were cancelled.

In lieu of in-person events, Hill shifted attention to online outreach, in the form of JMARS. JMARS, or Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing, was originally developed by the THEMIS team to create commands for the instrument, according to Hill.

“Over the last 20 years, we've added all sorts of capability and now it's a tool that's used by planetary scientists around the world,” he says. 

Even before the pandemic, the THEMIS team received funding from NASA to make JMARS more user friendly. Anyone from scientists to teachers to curious students can create accounts and explore the Martian surface using the 20-year catalog of THEMIS’ images.

Likewise, Bell’s in-person outreach work ground to a halt and he pivoted to socially distanced methods of science communication. 

“I had a new book come out in April of all times,” says Bell of his recently published “Hubble Legacy: 30 Years of Discoveries and Images.” “And I had a whole bunch of talks and events lined up for that all those got canceled.”

Instead, Bell transformed his physical book tour into a radio tour. 

“That was of course all virtual, but I really miss the interactions with live audiences, classrooms or civic groups, as well as the live audiences at professional conferences and workshops with my colleagues.”

Persevering despite difficulty

Though ASU’s space researchers are used to exploring our solar system remotely, social distancing has taken its toll, albeit in small ways.

“When it comes to Mars operations or lunar operations, I think everyone's just really passionate about what they do. So they naturally want to share it with people,” says Hill. “Recently, we've had a couple exciting things happen with our camera and I can't even share that excitement with my coworkers in-person, let alone people that are outside of ASU.”

Celebrating milestones and achievements will undoubtedly affect the Perseverance teams, as the official NASA activities surrounding the upcoming launch have been cancelled, says Bell.

“Associated with the launch, we were going to have a big social event and of course watch the launch from our VIP seats and feel the power of the rocket from just a few miles away and all that,” said Bell.

In place of an in-person celebration, the School of Earth and Space Exploration will be holding a live webinar with Bell and the Mastcam-Z team for the live launch of the Mars Perseverance rover on Thursday July 30 beginning at 4 a.m. PDT. Register to reserve your spot.

Fortunately for Bell and many of his colleagues, they have experience working together on previous rovers, but the established team is making efforts to include new additions to the mission.

“We're working really hard to make sure we stay in a lot of contact virtually,” he says. “The kind of thing just to make sure that we can build in as much of that really important team dynamic as we can, until such time that we're allowed to get together again.”