The aim is that when a new day dawns on Mars, the drivers are ready to go. Once either the Odyssey or MRO satellite is in the right place, they send a command to wake up the rover and upload its commands for the day. A bit like emailing a ‘to do’ list.
Gupta admits that the whole process is more time consuming than he first imagined. “Things that I can do in an hour on Earth, take days on Mars. Usually on Earth I work by myself, here we’ve got a team of 200 scientists so we have to work out these interactions and protocols.”
Once it’s started moving, Curiosity also has the ability to think for itself using data from its hazard avoidance cameras and built-in safely protocols. This autonomy should prevent it grounding on a rock or falling over an unexpected cliff but also adds to the pressure on the drivers and scientists planning each sol’s activities.
This is where the rovers in Mars Yard come in handy. This dusty outdoor arena at the back of the lab is around the size of a couple of tennis courts. Strewn with boulders, mounds of sand and even a cliff face, it’s home to two full-scale mock-ups of Curiosity. Although the real thing was tested extensively before launch, these rovers are still in use everyday by drivers trying to choreograph movement on Mars.
“We do have a pretty good idea how it’s going to perform,” Fuller confirms. “But these give us a chance, in flight, to modify and fine tune and to get as much bang for our buck as possible.” Specially, they allow engineers to test movements, software and work on any glitches that develop on the real thing.
The first rover is an identical copy of Curiosity; it’s even loaded with the exact same software. The second – and the one (for obvious reasons) they let me control – is not fitted with the same onboard computers, earning it the nickname Scarecrow, because it doesn’t have a “brain”. Although it’s the same size as Curiosity, Scarecrow is lighter, to simulate the effects of moving around in the lower gravity of Mars.
Scarecrow is little more than an impressively large remote controlled car. Scroll the tumblers to set distance and angle of movement on the iPhone app, hit go and it reacts instantly, there’s even a stop button if things start going awry.
Thanks to the efforts of its drivers and the engineering team behind them, Curiosity has covered (at the time of writing) more than 300m (1,000ft), including a single push of 42m (138ft), its biggest roll to date since landing on Mars two months ago. Despite being millions of miles away, it’s considerably further than I achieve before grounding Scarecrow.
“That’s the most fun a reporter has ever had with our rover,” says Fuller. I’m not sure he is paying me a compliment.