Send a Robot
Each morning Joy Crisp ’79 reviews amazing new pictures of the Martian landscape, sent to her computer by Curiosity, a robotic vehicle that can go where she can’t go. “It’s exciting to see the breathtaking scenery on Mars,” she says. “Curiosity wound its way over to Yellowknife Bay and then to Mount Sharp, and both were stunning. I wish I were there to see it with my own eyes, but this is pretty good.”
Crisp helps manage the 495 scientists on the Mars Science Laboratory (rover) program — 40 percent of whom are based at universities and institutions outside the United States — and serves as a liaison to the rovers’ JPL-based engineering and management team. She keeps up with the scientists’ analyses of the photos and chemical readings sent back by the rover and attends engineering meetings to troubleshoot problems that crop up when the rover suffers a mechanical breakdown or encounters challenging terrain.
Curiosity, the most recent Mars rover, was launched in 2011, landed on Mars in 2012, and might keep running until roughly 2024, which presents a challenge in itself. “Few of us use 10-year-old computers in our daily lives,” says Crisp. Yet JPL can’t simply replace the rover’s hardware every few years to incorporate technological advances. Instead, engineers have to change the way they command the rover — often in ways they couldn’t have imagined when the rover was built.
Plus, Curiosity has to stand up to weather conditions on Mars, including large temperature swings. “As time goes by, things break,” says Crisp, “but the engineers are good at finding workarounds to keep the rover going. Sometimes
we even send the rover new software to adjust to changes in the hardware.”
Curiosity and future rover missions offer a unique opportunity to understand not just Mars, but also Earth. By studying the data on geologic samples sent back by the rover, scientists may be able to determine if life ever existed on Mars — and more importantly, why or why not.
“On Earth, we have all this water on the surface and plate tectonics that are pulling things under,” says Crisp. That means that most of the ancient rocks are buried, have been altered by water, or are obscured by an overabundance of vegetation, and that makes it harder to find and examine them. “Whereas on Mars, a lot of ancient rock is exposed on the surface, so we have an extensive preserved geological record there that we don’t have on Earth.” Over time, data from those ancient Martian rocks may help scientists understand the genesis of planetary life. If life ever existed on Mars, microbes carried as stowaways on Martian meteorites might have provided the seeds for life on Earth.
The team’s hard work with the rover pays off in another important way: the pictures from Mars — available to the public and frequently used in classrooms — get children excited about science and space. “Kids see these pictures from Mars, and maybe they are inspired to go into related fields, or even just to learn more about science and how the universe works,” says Crisp.
After all, that excitement — whether it’s inspired by science or by science fiction — is what led the JPL staff members to their careers.