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How Engineers are Operating Deep-Space Probes, Martian Rovers, and Satelites from Their Homes

April 20, 2020 | The Verge

Carrie Bridge at her home work station.

Last Tuesday, a team of engineers sat huddled around their computer screens, monitoring a spacecraft as it maneuvered around a rocky asteroid more than 140 million miles from Earth. They were conducting an important interplanetary dress rehearsal, running the spacecraft through many of the operations it will do in August when it attempts to snag a tiny sample of rocks from the asteroid’s surface. This dress rehearsal has been in the works for years, and the team had expected to be gathered together for it in a mission center in Colorado.

Instead, most of them kept tabs on the event from home. “It was a skeleton crew that was supporting the event in person, compared to what was originally planned,” Mike Moreau, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, tells The Verge. “More than three-quarters of the team was doing it from home and monitoring remotely.”

Moreau is part of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, tasked with grabbing a sample of the asteroid Bennu and bringing it back to Earth for study. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched in 2016, and the team had planned for this particular dress rehearsal for more than a decade. They hadn’t counted on a pandemic occurring during one of the most highly anticipated checkpoints of their mission — but the show had to go on.

“We were all going to be there together in the mission operations area, and we actually had rehearsed that even before this checkpoint rehearsal; we had done a simulation,” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission at the University of Arizona, tells The Verge. “None of that happened. We were all in remote work conditions.”

Just like millions of workers all over the world, the engineers who operate spacecraft are grappling with how to do their jobs while working from home. All of NASA’s centers have instituted mandatory telework policies, with some exceptions for essential personnel. That includes many people who are tasked with calculating commands for interplanetary space probes and navigating rovers through harsh terrains on other worlds.

An artistic rendering of OSIRIS-REx at Bennu. Image: NASA

For some, the transition was awkward at first since operating a spacecraft often relies on ample amounts of in-person communication. That’s been the case for Carrie Bridge, who works as a liaison between scientists and the engineers who operate NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Every day, she talks with scientists all over the country about the kind of science they’d like the rover to accomplish, and then she relays those desires to the engineers who actually navigate the robot. Normally, she just walks over to the engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to coordinate the rover’s movements for the day.

“My morning consisted of being on the phone with the scientists and then going in and sitting beside the rover planners at the computer,” Bridge tells The Verge. “And we look at the terrain and look at the targets. I then go and report back to the scientists and say, ‘Okay I think we can drive over here.’”

Now, that entire routine has been moved online. She says she has about 15 to 20 chat rooms open for all of the engineers and rover planners — not to mention telecons with scientists across the country. “The level of intensity has gone up because you’re kind of always watching things,” Bridge says. “I’m also not exercising anymore,” she jokes. “I used to walk around, and now I’m staring at a computer station for hours on end without moving.”

One of the lead rover planners that Bridge communicates with is Matt Gildner, who is also coordinating all the commands for Curiosity from his one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. He and his team started testing how to work remotely back in mid-March when “the writing was on the wall” about the COVID-19 pandemic, he says. He started coordinating everything they’d need to have at home, including audio headsets, monitors, cables, and even 3D glasses. Curiosity sends back 3D images of the Martian terrain, which the rover planners and engineers observe as 3D meshes, allowing them to simulate how the rover will interact with the environment when it moves.

“I’m at home now, and I have all my headsets on as I talk to multiple audio channels, put on my red-blue glasses and evaluate parts of a drive that we’re planning for a few minutes as part of our planning day,” Gildner tells The Verge. “I have a nice desk set up and I’ve got all my houseplants around me, dual monitors, and a good keyboard and mouse headset stand. And this is working out just fine.”

Matt Gildner at his home work station with his 3D glasses. Image: NASA

Someone does need to physically be at mission control at JPL in order to send Curiosity the commands that Gildner and his team develop. That person sends commands out to the Deep Space Network, an array of large radio antennas here on Earth, which then beam commands to interplanetary space probes like the rover.

Other spacecraft operators have figured out a way to send commands to their spacecraft without actually having anyone in a mission control center. The Space Dynamics Laboratory in Utah is responsible for operating two small NASA satellites — HARP and CIRiS — which are both observing Earth. The team there typically goes into a mission control center to send commands to the spacecraft via a ground station in Virginia. But in a weird twist of fate, operators at the lab came up with a way to actually send the commands from their laptops at home just before everyone went into lockdown.

“We were preparing and testing out our working from home techniques right before the pandemic hit,” Ryan Martineau, an SDL engineer and spacecraft operator, tells The Verge. “We frequently have to operate our spacecraft in the middle of the night, and so we didn’t have to have the same two people driving into work every day, we were getting ready to test a secure solution.”

Martineau and his colleagues essentially took the software they use at their mission control centers that allows them to connect with the Virginia ground station, and they put it in their local computers. “We run a [virtual] Linux machine inside of our Windows laptop that has all the software we need to run the spacecraft,” he says. Thanks to this arrangement, Martineau can control the spacecraft around Earth from his home for the foreseeable future. And that means juggling other responsibilities while maintaining the satellites.

“I have a three year old and a three month old,” Martineau says. “There have been a couple of cases where I had to hurry up with a diaper change real quick before I needed to send some commands to the spacecraft.”

The presence of children and pets has been a mainstay for many at NASA’s workforce at home. “One of our dogs [a Great Dane] has this habit of squeaking his toys when he wants attention,” Amber Straughn, the associate director for the astrophysics science division at Goddard, writes in an email to The Verge. “He’s definitely done that a couple times when I’ve been in telecons.”

New work companions have also been present for the OSIRIS-REx team as they prepared for their big dress rehearsal last week. Many of the team managers have had to juggle family responsibilities, such as remote learning, as they prepared for the event. “For some of the managers it has been really stressful because we obviously wanted to see this go forward,” Moreau says. “But we were also very concerned about how our people were holding up.”

Ultimately, everyone made it to the day of the rehearsal. But with most of the team away from Lockheed Martin’s mission control center in Colorado, some adjustments needed to be made. “There’s no substitute for being in the same building; being on the same floor; being able to walk over to somebody’s office and say, ‘Hey, now I was just thinking about this. How does it look on your side?’” Lauretta says. “We couldn’t really do any of that.”

Lauretta says the team made do with calls, which mostly worked, though there were a few technical difficulties. “For some reason my phone kept going on mute,” he says. “I’d be dialed in, and I would be talking and nobody would be hearing me.” While that was frustrating, he said everyone was in good spirits. “Actually everybody was just happy to be talking to each other on the group chat.”

Despite the added challenges, the rehearsal went off without a hitch. During the practice session, OSIRIS-REx got closer to Bennu than it’s ever been before. It was a key maneuver that paves the way for OSIRIS-REx to get right next to Bennu’s surface in August and scoop up 60 grams of rocks from a crater called Nightingale. The engineers are thrilled with the result, though there was definitely some sadness over the unexpected circumstances.

“I would say it was bittersweet in the sense that it was a great day; everything went according to plan. But we didn’t get to celebrate it as a team,” says Lauretta, who notes that they’ve been waiting for this big test for over a decade. “We’re hopeful that by August, we’ll all be able to gather together and actually celebrate the actual sample collection event.”

For now, it’s unclear exactly when extreme social distancing will be over, allowing everyone — not just spacecraft operators — to return to their normal daily routines. But until that time arrives, the people in charge of operating spacecraft are making the most of their new mission control centers at home. For Gildner, it’s even been a nice distraction from the daily cycle of news surrounding the virus.

“Work is a nice escape from everything that’s going on, especially when you’re working on a spaceflight project,” Gildner says “You feel like you’re doing something that is very worthwhile that humanity appreciates, and right now that’s important more than ever, I think.”