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The MSL project organized a training exercise designed to test the teams’ skills in planning rover operations on a realistic timeline. The test included a simulated “rover” at an undisclosed field location on Earth while the science team acted as if the rover was on Mars.

Science planning is the daily process by which the scientists review the observations made on Mars and generate new commands for the rover. It is like a geologist field trip, except that the scientists operate remotely. When Curiosity is on Mars, it will execute the plan mainly during the martian day, which leaves the night –a maximum of 16 hours– for the scientists and the engineers to plan the next day. Sixteen hours is not much time to make the right tactical decisions and prepare all of the rover commands.

During this test, the “rover” was actually a small team of people, equipped with instruments more or less equivalent to those onboard Curiosity. The ChemCam team participated in the mission simulation by sending a “backpack” LIBS system provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and a camera provided by the French Space Agency (CNES), with two operators such that the “rover” had the capability to take spectra and images, just like the actual ChemCam instrument.

The main objective of the test was for each individual scientist to get a feeling for what it takes to run a rover on Mars. It gave scientists the opportunity to learn about the software, to learn to retrieve and process the data, and to build the activities for Curiosity. It was very exciting and the ChemCam team learned a lot!

The test conductors at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the field team did a great job to create a realistic but fictitious scenario where Curiosity would have been on Mars for more than 7 months. Roving on Mars is a joint effort between different disciplines (geologists, physicists, biologists, chemists, engineers) and different countries (USA, France, Spain, Russia, Canada, and Germany). The collaboration went smoothly within the ChemCam team, which is represented jointly by the USA and France.

What are the shapes and the colors of the rocks? Where are they in the landscape? What are they made of? How do they compare with the soil? Where shall we go to find the most interesting stuff? All these questions generated a lot of discussions through teleconferences, emails, and other collaborative tools. There is a lot of pressure to decipher in due time the landscape and the composition of the surrounding terrain. ChemCam was used a lot and was successful in helping us interpret the geology of this Mars analog landing site.

Overall, the ChemCam team had a good, though exhausting, time. The simulation strengthened the personal bonds between the participants. There will be some follow-up over the summer. But everybody now looks on to the future and is excited by the next step: Mars!

Images:

  • The ChemCam and SAM teams at CNES during the FMFT, (c) CNES/Emmanuel Grimault, 2011
  • The ChemCam team at LANL during the FMFT, (c) LANL
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