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Thu May 2, 2013, 09:40 AM

Driving Mars Rovers: ‘It can get a little boring’


Nasa driver who has clocked up most miles on the Red Planet reveals what it’s really like to be behind the wheel of a space rover.

I met a man employed on Mars. Not just watching it from a distance, but doing things on its surface. Paolo Bellutta is his name and he drives Nasa’s Curiosity and Opportunity Rovers – the only working cars in space. As he proudly tells me, “I’m one of the few people who has an interplanetary driver’s licence.” For further clarification he’s also wearing a bright red jacket with “Mars Rover Driver” emblazoned across the back.

Let me back up a bit. Despite the 30-year old Lou Reed hit Satellite of Love predicting that Mars would soon “be filled with parking cars”, so far only four have made it to the planet. Bellutta has driven all but the first, the tiny Sojourner rover landed there by Nasa’s Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 that lasted three months before losing contact.

He’s a leading figure in both the ongoing Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission – which landed Spirit and Opportunity in 2004 – and in the most recent Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which last year used a fiendishly complicated and previously untried “sky crane” to lower the nearly one tonne nuclear-powered, family-car-sized Curiosity almost exactly on target in the Gale Crater, a site he’d helped select. On the day of the landing last August, Bellutta admits he was in pieces, although he’s adamant he wasn’t worried that Curiosity might be too. The team responsible for getting the rover down to the surface in one working piece had his complete trust: “they’re really, really smart people,” he says with a grin, “so I bet my work on them.” Nevertheless for all the work he’d done in advance, and all that he was preparing to do on Mars, the descent itself was out of his hands. He claims to have been so nervous that despite having brought in his camera specially he failed to take a single picture.

The landing worked out almost exactly as planned. Things on Mars often don’t. Even though it happened nearly four years ago, Bellutta is still visibly upset and seems almost lost for words trying to describe how Spirit became stuck in soft soil and why they couldn’t find any way to get the stricken rover back on track. His team spent months attempting to simulate the conditions – not easy when you’ve got to mimic the low gravity as well as the terrain – and went through every combination of forward and backwards motion for the wheels, even using them as paddles to attempt to swim Spirit out (something which proved surprisingly effective, but came too late to save it/her). “We tried everything”, he says. But what, I ask, if you’d known what you know now and done things in a different sequence? “Perhaps,” Bellutta says wistfully. You can tell it’s the perhaps which still needles him.

more
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130501-getting-stuck-in-a-rut-on-mars

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Reply Driving Mars Rovers: ‘It can get a little boring’ (Original post)
n2doc May 2013 OP
Warren DeMontague May 2013 #1
jakeXT May 2013 #2
Orsino May 2013 #3

Response to n2doc (Original post)

Thu May 2, 2013, 11:03 AM

1. No one associated with the MER program owes anything close to an apology. Those things performed

incredibly.

It's worth remembering that they were originally designed for a 30 day operational lifespan.
This is the DU member formerly known as Warren DeMontague.

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Response to Warren DeMontague (Reply #1)

Thu May 2, 2013, 04:06 PM

2. They weren't anticipating dust cleaning events

The solar arrays of the two NASA Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), Spirit and Opportunity, were expected to accumulate so much dust after 90 Martian days (sols) that they could no longer provide enough energy to guarantee continued surface operations. Instead, due in part to low dust accumulation rates and numerous dust cleaning events,they have carried out surface operations for over 2200 sols each.

http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2010AGUFM.P53E1559H


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Response to Warren DeMontague (Reply #1)

Fri May 3, 2013, 04:19 PM

3. I'd say they're entitled to draw a penis or two. n/t

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