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Mars mission puts working from home to the ultimate test

The launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover marks the start of a seven-month-long journey involving tens of millions of miles of travel — but it also marks the end of an eight-year-long journey involving millions of miles of travel on the part of scientists and engineers across the country.

And perhaps the biggest marvel is that, in the end, most of them got the rover and its scientific instruments ready for launch while working from home.

Working from home has been a tough thing to manage for many of the businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing restrictions. It’s been tough for NASA as well.

“Putting a spacecraft together that’s going to Mars, and not making a mistake — it’s hard, no matter what. Trying to do it during the middle of a pandemic, it’s a lot harder,” Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a pre-launch briefing.

Fortunately, NASA and its partners could draw upon decades’ worth of experience in remote operations. “When the pandemic came along, it didn’t make that much difference in the way I operate, because I was already used to working remotely with JPL,” said the University of Washington’s Tim Elam, who’s part of the science team for the rover’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

Once the rover is on its way, working remotely will become even more routine. “Pasadena is about the same distance away from Mars that Seattle is,” Elam joked.

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First Mode and WWU will make a gizmo for Mars

Goniometer
A goniometer is a tool that either measures an angle or helps position an object at a very precise angle for measurement. (First Mode Illustration / Peter Illsley)

Seattle’s First Mode team and Western Washington University say they’ve won a NASA contract to advance the technology for sizing up rocks on Mars.

The project, funded under NASA’s Solar System Workings program, will support the development of an automated tool known as a goniometer. Such a tool could be used on future Mars missions to measure angles precisely in three dimensions.

“If you used a protractor in grade school to measure angles, you used a simple version of a goniometer,” First Mode’s Kathleen Hoza and Rhae Adams explained in a blog posting about the project.

On Mars, such a device should facilitate spectral observations of rock samples at different angles, opening the way for more detailed chemical analyses. One of the cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover has been used to make goniometer measurements in Mars’ Gale Crater.

Melissa Rice, a planetary scientist at Western Washington University, is principal investigator for the newly announced project.

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