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Driving Mars Rovers: ‘It can get a little boring’

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Described by the Times as “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and the Daily Mail as someone whose “wit and enthusiasm can enliven the dullest of topics”,  Quentin is a broadcaster, film critic and author best known for presenting the UK's most listened to science programme, The Material World on BBC Radio 4 . It’s “quite the best thing on radio”, according to Bill Bryson. You can find him on Twitter at @materialworld

What it’s really like to drive a Mars rover

(Copyright: Nasa)

Nasa driver who has clocked up most miles on the Red Planet reveals what it’s really like to be behind the wheel of a space rover.

I met a man employed on Mars. Not just watching it from a distance, but doing things on its surface. Paolo Bellutta is his name and he drives Nasa’s Curiosity and Opportunity Rovers – the only working cars in space. As he proudly tells me, “I’m one of the few people who has an interplanetary driver’s licence.” For further clarification he’s also wearing a bright red jacket with “Mars Rover Driver” emblazoned across the back.

Let me back up a bit. Despite the 30-year old Lou Reed hit Satellite of Love predicting that Mars would soon “be filled with parking cars”, so far only four have made it to the planet. Bellutta has driven all but the first, the tiny Sojourner rover landed there by Nasa’s Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 that lasted three months before losing contact.

He’s a leading figure in both the ongoing Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission – which landed Spirit and Opportunity in 2004 – and in the most recent Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which last year used a fiendishly complicated and previously untried “sky crane” to lower the nearly one tonne nuclear-powered, family-car-sized Curiosity almost exactly on target in the Gale Crater, a site he’d helped select. On the day of the landing last August, Bellutta admits he was in pieces, although he’s adamant he wasn’t worried that Curiosity might be too. The team responsible for getting the rover down to the surface in one working piece had his complete trust: “they’re really, really smart people,” he says with a grin, “so I bet my work on them.” Nevertheless for all the work he’d done in advance, and all that he was preparing to do on Mars, the descent itself was out of his hands. He claims to have been so nervous that despite having brought in his camera specially he failed to take a single picture.

The landing worked out almost exactly as planned. Things on Mars often don’t.   Even though it happened nearly four years ago, Bellutta is still visibly upset and seems almost lost for words trying to describe how Spirit became stuck in soft soil and why they couldn’t find any way to get the stricken rover back on track. His team spent months attempting to simulate the conditions – not easy when you’ve got to mimic the low gravity as well as the terrain – and went through every combination of forward and backwards motion for the wheels, even using them as paddles to attempt to swim Spirit out (something which proved surprisingly effective, but came too late to save it/her). “We tried everything”, he says. But what, I ask, if you’d known what you know now and done things in a different sequence?  “Perhaps,” Bellutta says wistfully.  You can tell it’s the perhaps which still needles him.

The MER and MSL missions have more than a dozen drivers between them, but Paolo is the one with the most space miles clocked up who is still part of the team. “Google pays better,” he says when asked why some of the others have left.  There may also be another factor.  One which at first seems hard to fathom for a job that seems at the very edge of human capabilities, and right on the border between reality and science fiction. “Even though you are working on Mars,” Bellutta confesses, “it can get a little boring.”

Depending how far away Mars is, the signal from Earth can take anything from five to 20 minutes to reach the rovers. “We don’t drive interactively, we send commands to drive the vehicle all in one chunk, the vehicle receives these commands and executes them all together, and then at the end of the work day it sends back the results,” he says.

It’s this staccato, back-and-forth, send-and-wait way of controlling Curiosity and Opportunity which is demanding, draining…and at least sometimes dull. It’s also at least partly why I was able to meet Bellutta. I chaired a talk with him at the Royal Society of Chemistry in London at the end of a twenty-lecture tour he’s giving while Mars is on the opposite side of the Sun and the rovers are both temporarily beyond his – or anyone’s – control. “That’s one of the reasons I used my time off to give all these talks”, he tells me, “to see if I can get my excitement back. And I have.”

That much is clear from the way he feeds off the energy in the packed venue; but what about all those there and the rest of us eagerly awaiting word of new findings by Curiosity, and perhaps even clearer signs there was once life on Mars?  Paolo grins impishly. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Stay tuned.”

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