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How do you drive a Mars rover from home? Don't worry, NASA's got this.

Members of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover mission team took photos of themselves on March 20, 2020, the first day they all worked remotely.
Members of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover mission team took photos of themselves on March 20, 2020, the first day they all worked remotely.
(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Imagine trying to control a Mars rover from your living room — that's what the team behind NASA's Curiosity rover is doing right now. 

People all around the world are working from home right now, including most NASA workers after the space agency'scchiefcJim Bridenstine mandated that all employees work remotely, with the exception of essential mission personnel. That means that the scientists and engineers controlling Curiosity are working in their homes — in their living rooms, at their kitchen tables, with their dogs and cats begging for treats and attention, along with the various other distractions and difficulties working remotely can present.

As of March 20, the entire Curiosity rover team has been working remotely for the first time in the mission's history. This was a serious shift as, not only were the team members dealing with a new working environment, but they were also no longer in the same room working together at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory — which oversees the mission — in Pasadena, California. However, the team quickly adapted and sent out their first command in this new working setup to the rover on Mars.

Related: Amazing Mars photos by NASA's Curiosity rover (latest images) 

And it looks like the team has been able to quickly adapt to their new situation. Just two days after this radical shift, on March 22, with some tests and one full practice run under their belt, the team sent commands Curiosity and the rover successfully drilled a rock sample at "Edinburgh" (a location on the Red Planet). 

"We're usually all in one room, sharing screens, images and data. People are talking in small groups and to each other from across the room," Alicia Allbaugh, who leads the rover's integrated planning and execution team, said in a NASA statement, adding that "I probably monitor about 15 chat channels at all times. You're juggling more than you normally would."

However, thanks to some advanced planning, the team has been able to make it work. Just in case they needed to go remote, the team started to consider what equipment they might need to work from home and how they might communicate best with one another, according to the statement. 

Still, they can't access all of the equipment that they usually use at JPL from their homes. For example, team members usually use special goggles that shift quickly between the left and right camera views from Curiosity's MastCamvision to help study 3D images of the Martian terrain. The goggles help planners identify details of the red, dusty terrain in order to figure out the best area to send Curiosity and what it could do with its robotic arm. 

While those detailed images can help ensure that  Curiosity will collect and study the most scientifically interesting targets while also avoiding damage, they do require specialized equipment at JPL. The goggles require the use of graphics cards on powerful computers, all of which are located at the space center. Since mission planners can't use these goggles at home, they've turned to something a bit more low-tech: red-blue 3D glasses. 

"It's classic, textbook NASA," Allbaugh said. "We're presented with a problem and we figure out how to make things work. Mars isn't standing still for us; we're still exploring."

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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  • Ratwrangler
    I read this and several other articles to try to find out how they were applying the red and blue highlights so the anaglyph glasses will work. Unfortunately, they did not say how the images were modified. The article did say the glasses worked quite well, which brings up the question of why they are spending huge amounts of money on expensive goggles and graphics cards, when a couple of pieces of colored plastic would do the job about as well. On the other hand, I know several people that, due to physical limitations, have no stereovision whatsoever, and they have no problems maneuvering in a 3D world at all, so an effectively monochrome 3D representation produced by the anaglyph glasses may not be as necessary as NASA is implying.
    Reply
  • Mike from Sydney
    Takes me back to the Viking landers in the 1970s. NASA published a book of images from the landers that included stereo images and red/blue glasses. Well before virtual reality was invented I was amazed at the experience of standing on the surface of Mars.
    Reply
  • Lovethrust
    Ratwrangler said:
    I read this and several other articles to try to find out how they were applying the red and blue highlights so the anaglyph glasses will work. Unfortunately, they did not say how the images were modified. The article did say the glasses worked quite well, which brings up the question of why they are spending huge amounts of money on expensive goggles and graphics cards, when a couple of pieces of colored plastic would do the job about as well. On the other hand, I know several people that, due to physical limitations, have no stereovision whatsoever, and they have no problems maneuvering in a 3D world at all, so an effectively monochrome 3D representation produced by the anaglyph glasses may not be as necessary as NASA is implying.
    You know I don’t own a 3d tv but I watched Coraline with the red blue glasses (I actually bought a pair online, much better than the cardboard ones) and you are right, the 3d was almost as good as a dedicated screen.
    Reply
  • Lovethrust
    Mike from Sydney said:
    Takes me back to the Viking landers in the 1970s. NASA published a book of images from the landers that included stereo images and red/blue glasses. Well before virtual reality was invented I was amazed at the experience of standing on the surface of Mars.
    Great book!!! I still bring it out time to time

    Reply
  • Lovethrust
    Of course the only I think about when I saw the title of the article was that hilarious episode of The Big Bang Theory!
    Reply