July 14, 2004

As Mars mission turns to remote operations, Cornell's MarsLab takes on major new role

PASADENA, Calif. -- Since the beginning of January the Cornell University team running the panoramic cameras, or Pancams, on the two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, has been largely functioning out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. That's where instructions are uplinked, or sent, to the two roving vehicles.

But as the mission ages -- in April NASA extended its life until at least mid-September -- demand is growing for space at JPL for other missions, such as Deep Impact and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Both missions also have Cornell involvement; the first studies the interior of a comet, the second will get even higher-resolution orbital data on Mars.) In addition, the Mars science team members need to get back to their universities.

As a result, the MarsLab at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., is gradually taking on a new mission: actually generating the instructions for uplink directly to the two twin-lensed panoramic cameras atop each rover's mast.

For some months the MarsLab -- the full name is the Cornell University Mars Data Analysis Facility -- has been downlinking information from the cameras aboard the two rovers, as well as carrying out daily health monitoring of the cameras. That means that the lab receives the image data concurrently with JPL and, using Cornell-developed software, calibrates and assembles the elegant, breathtaking mosaics that scan craters, rock-strewn horizons and distant hills.

"At JPL we work with all the scientists on the mission to pull together the daily plan for what to send up to the rovers," says Jim Bell, associate professor of astronomy at Cornell who leads the Pancam team. "Our team's specific job is to put the sequences together for Pancam. But instead of doing it at JPL, we have the tools at Cornell to do the same work, and in the MarsLab our people can participate in the daily operations meetings either by video link or by teleconferencing." A month ago, the MarsLab began these daily conferences with mission engineers and scientists at JPL and Arizona State University, and these conferences will continue until the mission ends -- no one knows quite when.During the week of June 13, two of the four Cornell researchers qualified to write uplink commands for the Pancams, 2002 Cornell graduates Heather Arneson and Miles Johnson, returned to Ithaca to test, for the first time, the remote operations of the Pancams on Mars directly from the Cornell campus. "It wasn't too bad on the first trial," said Arneson, who is now back at JPL with Johnson. "All the tools we have were working pretty well. The only issues we have to work out are communications." Once away from JPL, she observes, people elsewhere in the mission team forgot that the two researchers were in Ithaca, and Arneson and Johnson had to resort to phone calls. "We had to be more reactive," she recalls.

The Mars team is spending less and less time at JPL. Already Bell and senior researcher associate Rob Sullivan are spending only one week a month there, and in mid July, Arneson and Johnson will return permanently to Ithaca, to give the remote operations another test. The third team member, 1998 Cornell graduate Jon Proton, will be back in August, by which time it's expected that the MarsLab will routinely be uplinking data to the rover cameras. The fourth member, research specialist Elaina McCartney, will be the last to return.

The four specialists note a big change since the frenzied, euphoric early days of the mission. "We would spend about 12 hours a day here, on a good day. Now it's more like six hours, or less," says Arneson. "The meetings go really quickly, everything's a lot quicker." Says McCartney, "Everything is compressed. We have gotten better at it."

There is a bittersweetness to the atmosphere as this part of the mission begins to wind down. On the one hand says Johnson, "there is less complexity to what we are doing." On the other hand, notes McCartney, when the team was working on Mars time (a Mars day is 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds, and the two rovers are on opposite sides of the planet) there were "endless science discussions while we were away in a backroom writing sequences for the spacecraft, and we missed out on a lot of that. Now they have joint meetings scheduled at a time when people from uplink staff can participate and know what is going on."

One thing all of the team members agree on: They will be sorry to say good-bye to Southern California. "I love it. It's great," says McCartney.

Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide additional information on this news release. Some might not be part of the Cornell University community, and Cornell has no control over their content or availability.

o JPL: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov

o Cornell Chronicle Mars coverage: http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/rover/rovermenu.html