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.”