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IHMC Scientist Recounts Mars Explorations In Award-Winning Book

MIT Press

A researcher from the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) was awarded the 2014 Gardner-Lasser Aerospace History Literature Award. The award honors the best original contribution to the field of aeronautical or astronautical historical non-fiction literature published in the last five years.

Dr. William Clancey is a senior research scientist at IHMC. In his book, “Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery with The Mars Exploration Rovers,” Clancey spoke with scientists working on the Mars Exploration Rovers Project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“They all talked about that they were exploring Mars. They felt that they were there. They were interested in doing the work because they were explorers. And they talked about some of their frustration, which was common, because it was so slow,” Clancey said.

Clancey traveled to the Canadian arctic on expeditions with NASA space, planetary and computer scientists. While there, he studied the nature of how field science and scientific exploration is conducted. He later worked with the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, run by the Mars Society. Clancey and his team got involved working with the Mars Exploration Rover scientists in Pasadena, CA.

“I realized that there had to be a connection between how people studied in person, in the arctic, with how do you study remotely, through a robotic laboratory, without even being on the planet,” Clancey said.

Clancey says he began each of his interviews with the scientists, “What’s it like to work with a rover?” His book is a mixture of firsthand observations and interviews.

"In the first ninety days, they were living and working on Mars-time in Pasadena." William Clancey

“I was able to see what it was like to work with a rover, and by seeing how they worked, as I tell in the book, in these dark rooms, with the shades drawn, simulating the time on Mars,” Clancey said.

Each Sol, or length of a Mars day, lasts twenty four hours and forty minutes. The Mars Exploration Rover landed on Mars in January 2004. This rover was originally designed for a ninety Sol mission, but has survived for nearly ten years.

You can see a video of Opportunity's Mars landing here:

“In the first ninety days, they were living and working on Mars-time in Pasadena,” Clancey said. “After that, they went home, and they operated using telephones and the internet. And they had a shared database, if you will, where they could schedule and work on the programs together.”

The engineers continued to work in Pasadena, operating the rover. While the rover rested at night, the scientists worked on programs to give the rover commands for the next day. Clancey says that driving uses a lot of power, and the rover sometimes runs on the equivalent of a 100-watt lightbulb. On some afternoons when the sun is at a good angle, the scientists would stop the rover to allow the batteries to recharge.

“In the mission, what’s maybe most unexpected, is that people think of a robotics system as replacing people. But here you have a robotic laboratory, even though sometimes it had been called a robotic geologist, it’s a laboratory that allows them to work remotely, and to work as a team,” Clancey said.

The Mars rover Opportunity’s mission has been extended several times. It continues to send images and data back from Mars.

Katya Ivanov is a reporter for WUWF News. Follow her @WUWF_Katya or Katya@wuwf.org