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AMASE 2007: Cold and Drizzly
08.15.07
 
Today the cold and drizzly weather continued. The poor weather prevented a full rover deployment for the simulated mission operations. Steve Squyres, our mission manager, instituted a slightly modified mission operation simulation using several humans with deployed field instruments and Kjell Ove, our professional photographer, as the rover cameras. Stocked with a range of zoom and stereo imaging capabilities, the field team could accurately simulate rover data. The rest of the simulation proceeded as planned with the remote science team onboard the ship planning each Sol's (a Martian day) activities based on previously acquired rover data and selecting future rover activities within the power/bandwidth limitations of our uplink/downlink system.

The AMASE team was separated into two teams for this exercise, unable to communicated directly with one another. The remote science team, which I was on, was locked up inside the ship so as not to see the rover party on shore and make assumptions about the field site. Chairing the remote science meetings, or Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) as they are technically called, was Albert Haldemann. Albert currently works for the European Space Agency (ESA), but used to be a SOWG chair for MER and thus was a pleasantly organized and thoughtful leader.

In the middle of the day, a polar bear was spotted walking along the shore between the ship and the field rover party! Our first bear of the year, it was in nearly the same location as the one we saw last year. The human downlink (a Norwegian with a USB key, in the absence of a ship-to-shore communication channel at this point) came close to walking straight into the bear, but was alerted by radio and retreated safely to the remaining field party. Since this was a potentially rare event, the SOWG was allowed on deck to watch and photograph the bear. It was big and lumbered down the shore. Two of the Lance crew were in Zodiacs on the beach and shot a flare at the bear to deter it from the survival suits. The bear was scared off the exposure suits by the flare, and changed course enough so that everyone could enjoy the sight. I watched anxiously on deck, concerned about the safety of the field party. We did not have much to worry about, however, as the field party remained perched halfway up Sverrefjell and the bear continued to amble along the shore. It decided to do some stretching and finally appeared to go to sleep about a mile farther up the fjord. The field party designated polar bear guards and watched the bear (christened "Pooch") until the exercise was terminated later that evening.

Seeing activities and realities on both sides was a unique perspective, held by only a few people who managed the communications between the two groups. Steve Squyres, the mission manager, was one of these few.

> From Steve:

The field test was a learning experience for the science team, and a lot of fun for me.

It was what I call a "roverless rover test'. The point of such a test isn't really to teach the scientists how to operate a Mars rover, with all of the details that that involves. Instead, it's to help them learn how to do scientific fieldwork through the eyes of a robot. And to learn that, you don't need a robot at all; you just need to simulate one.

Up the hill, on the flanks of the volcano, was a bunch of AMASErs armed with cameras, spectrometers and rock hammers, ready to pretend they were a Mars rover. And back on the ship, in a crowded room with the portholes closed, was the science team. The field team would collect pictures and other data up on the mountainside just as a rover would, and transmit them to the ship. I'd give the data to the science team. And then the science team's job was to look at it all, try to make some sense out of it, and tell the "rover" what to do next. We'd radio instructions up the hill, the "rover" would go to work, and we'd repeat it just as if we had a real rover on Mars.

Well, almost. The reality under arctic conditions was a little different. It was a raw, miserable day on the mountain, with fog, rain, and a lot of wind. The field team was pretty uncomfortable up there. Some of the things the science team asked for were possible, but others simply weren't; it was too cold, not all the equipment was working, and so forth. My job was to conceal all of these real-world details from the science team, because anything that wouldn't happen in a Mars mission shouldn't intrude into the test. So every time something went wrong up on the mountain, I had to concoct some kind of cover story to tell the scientists. So if there wasn't time for the team on the mountain to process all of the pictures they wanted, I'd make up some story about how a data relay spacecraft in orbit around Mars had suffered some kind of onboard anomaly. It was fun, and at times it taxed my imagination to come up with an escalating but mutually consistent set of lies aimed at keeping the science team just as much in the dark about the field site as they would be if it were really on Mars.

It mostly worked, though there was one incident that made it impossible for me to maintain the illusion. According to the rules of the test, the science team is confined to quarters for the duration. But when someone yells out that there's a polar bear on shore, the situation quickly becomes pretty hopeless. I was nearly trampled as a stampede of camera-laden scientists burst out onto the deck.

The bear eventually moseyed onward, I shooed the science team back inside, and we resumed the test. And late in the evening, after twelve hours in the cold, the "rover" -- all of them -- returned to the ship to warm drinks and applause. It was a good day.

 
 
Kirsten Fristad
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center