Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Analog Rover Missions: More Than Just Acting Out Your Childhood Dreams

PVL Undergraduate Student Brittney Cooper (right) driving the MESR Rover (left) in the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Mars Yard following the end of a 2 week long analog mission put on by the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at Western, in conjunction with CSA, in 2014.   This weekend, students from the Toronto area will get their own opportunity to participate in a model or 'analogue' space mission.

By Brittney Cooper

      In just under a week, PVL plans to host its first analog rover mission on May 27th. It’s a one-day event for upper year high-school students, and I will be the acting “rover”. Don’t laugh, this is not my first analog mission but it is however my first one acting in the role of a robot. While each mission has its own unique goals and desired outcomes, the overarching reason for conducting this type of exercise lies in education, training and outreach.
      Acting on a real-life mission is a unique experience, and it is not easy to know what to expect based upon the experiences you’ve had in previous jobs or in other areas of your life. Analog missions serve as a great tool to train and provide examples of the operation processes, hierarchy and protocol. You get the opportunity to understand how important science decisions are made and rationalized against data and power constraints of your rover or spacecraft. It’s a unique opportunity to gain insight on how hundreds of people are able to work together to design a mission from the beginning. This includes formulating the science outcomes and payloads, and then actually acting out the structured long-term and tactical planning that is carried out regularly, to achieve those outcomes. 

      Many people think (and I’ll admit that at one time I held a similar notion) that a Mars rover mission largely consists of a single person in a room full of screens and a joystick driving the rover second-by-second, but in actuality there's a hierarchy that must be respected. This is why it takes a team of knowledgeable and passionate people to make any mission a success. As an analog mission participant, you get to glimpse the kinds of decisions principal investigators and mission scientists struggle with, the questions they have to ask, and the connections they have to make in order to be an asset to an expensive and scientifically valuable mission. These are among the most valuable benefits of any analog mission.
      Analog missions can vary in length, size and budget, but often feature a human acting as the rover or spacecraft, carrying out observations, measurements and drives. The combination of uploading sequenced actions and downloading data and status updates from the “rover” is not appreciably different from a real mission, and having a person operating instruments and taking the requested data behind the scenes is a few million dollars cheaper than using a state of the art rover do it, for essentially the same result. Needless to say this is the route oft taken for these exercises, and for our event, I will be that human.
      The mission we will be hosting on May 27th will be an opportunity for students to get a taste of all aspects of planetary exploration. They will begin by choosing a landing ellipse that will best fit the desired science outcomes, as described by the Head of Exploration. They will then choose the rover’s science payload, arguing for the best instruments to achieve their goals while dealing with weight and size constraints for launch and landing. The participants will then be assigned operational roles such as science planners, instrument engineers and rover engineers, in order to take part in planning three simulated sols (days on Mars). Students will be tasked with determining long-term and short-term science goals and then designing single sol plans to achieve them within the afore-mentioned constraints. At the end of the mission, the students will get an opportunity to come to their chosen landing site and traverse the path they chose for the rover, and see just how different or similar it was from what they gathered from the imagery they received from the rover.
      At the end of an analog mission, it really comes down to understanding the importance of compromise and science priorities, while coming to terms with the fact that judgment calls have to be made all the time, and they can’t be made without justification. Every minute the rover is using power is precious and has immense potential; mission operations is about maximizing that potential and ensuring nothing is over-looked and the rover’s health is never jeopardized.
      For more information, or to become a participant in our event, please see our flyer.

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