Press Release

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

By SpaceRef Editor
July 17, 2004
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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

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: <>

o Cornell Chronicle Mars coverage:

SpaceRef staff editor.