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Engineers Exercise for Martian Matchup
Rehearsing for the Real Deal

Mars plays a mean defense. The red warrior has overwhelmed nearly two-thirds of all international spacecraft that have sought its mysteries. For NASA's latest encounter with Earth's testy neighbor, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team will be going into battle armored with discipline, training and experience.

In this image, mission operations training engineer Ruth Fragoso takes a phone call during the practice run, or operational readiness test, for Mars orbit insertion (when MRO enters Mars' orbit).  Fragoso is a Hispanic woman in her thirties with dark, shoulder-length hair.  She is holding a white phone receiver to her ear Image to the right
Mission operations training engineer Ruth Fragoso works during the operational readiness test. The test simulates the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's insertion into Mars' orbit.
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Until Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is safely in its final science orbit, it is largely an engineering game. Like any good squad, the engineering team practices before the "big game."

"We want to make sure our team is ready," said mission operations training engineer Ruth Fragoso. "We're trying to pressure the team. We want to see how they respond. We try to get them at their weakest spots."

In an exercise with a relatively benign name – operational readiness test – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter engineers are put through their paces in an orbit insertion simulation that Fragoso notes is "as flight-like as possible."

In this close-up image, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter chief engineer Todd Bayer is reviewing data on a screen directly in front of him during a practice run for Mars orbit insertion.  He is a Caucasian male in his thirties or early forties with brown hair and a bit of a five-o-clock shadow.  He is wearing a headset that allows him to hear and communicate with his co-workers at JPL (in Pasadena, California) and in Denver about the spacecraft’s performance. Image to the left
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter chief engineer Todd Bayer reviews telemetry data during the operational readiness test.
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Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter chief engineer Todd Bayer said of their recent test, "For all intents and purposes, it is real. It's our equivalent of the cockpit flight simulator for pilots that allows them to practice their proficiency. Even in these practice runs, red alarms are very real!"

High-Scoring Scrimmages and Practices

Like a purposely placed mole, Fragoso and others (her "mole mentor" is JPL’s Larry Bryant) try to determine their own team's Achilles' heels and mission-related details that might be underestimated or overlooked.

"I try to listen for weak points and issues that are unresolved during meetings and make note of them; they are areas that are forced to be addressed during the rehearsals," said Fragoso. "There are typical ones and sneaky ones."

All told, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team endured 17 anomalies during their recent test; eleven of those were planned issues (officially called green cards) dreamt up by the team assembled to induce failure. Six irregularities were not intentionally thrown in, but real problems the team uncovered.

In this image, Lockheed Martin system engineer Cindy Schulz is seated at her console (computer station) in the mission control room at JPL.  She is a Caucasian woman in her thirties with cropped blond hair.  She is wearing a headset that allows her to hear and communicate with her co-workers at JPL (in Pasadena, California) and in Denver about the spacecraft’s performance. Image to the right
Lockheed Martin system engineer Cindy Schulz communicates with others on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft team during the recent orbit insertion simulation.
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"Gotchas," as Lockheed Martin system engineer Cindy Schulz calls them, included electronics faults and a complex induced failure on a card that reads temperature data, which erroneously turned on heaters. Overheating can cause attitude control to fail, causing the spacecraft to veer dangerously off course. The team wasn’t even convinced that this failure could actually occur in reality but, alas, they learned it could and are now prepared to deal with it if it should arise.

"Operational readiness tests are where the bugs come out," Schulz noted. "We train so that these problems do come up and we can work through them."

The team has also gained invaluable knowledge about the spacecraft while it's been on its way to the red planet. Unlike Spirit and Opportunity, cocooned in their aeroshells (their protective casings), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been in its full flight configuration since shortly after launch.

"With this spacecraft, we never had a quiet cruise to Mars," said Schulz. "We didn’t do just basic maintenance, we conducted major science and engineering calibrations to test how well the instruments were doing in space. These activities help shorten the learning curve for us when we get to Mars and start mapping."

Playbook, Field Positions and Skilled Players

To learn to maneuver as a team and to be prepared for whatever is thrown at them, the team learns critical procedures and develops its response time to spacecraft issues and decisions.

"We have three critical decisions about trajectory and orbital corrections to make within about 30 hours and some happen in the middle of the night," Bayer noted. "It's important to have people go through them at least once, to make sure our minds are focused and not marveling that it’s 3 a.m.!"

This image is a wide shot of the mission control room for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project at JPL in Pasadena, California.  The image highlights all of the consoles (computer stations) where team members sit during the critical Mars orbit insertion activity.  People are seated based on their specialty – an area for navigators, an area for attitude control engineers, etc.  Members of the operations team for the spacecraft are gathered in the center of the room, discussing the practice run they are conducting.  There is a window at the front of the room that looks onto the 'darkroom' area of the building.  Engineers in that room communicate with the Deep Space Network, the worldwide array of antennae that track spacecraft.  In the darkroom, large screens display mission information. Image to the left
Members of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter operations team discuss returned data during the operational readiness test.
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Bayer compares preparation for orbit insertion to a symphony orchestra mastering a musical score. And, like an orchestra, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team has strategic seating to make for a seamless performance. Unlike an orchestra, some of the key players are not in Pasadena at JPL, but at Lockheed Martin in Denver (where the spacecraft was built) and at Deep Space Network Stations worldwide. All of these special teams are part of the rehearsals.

Game On!

With a matter of days until Mars orbit insertion, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team has successfully completed dozens of preparatory tests. One final operational readiness test will serve as a real dress rehearsal.

This image features a large screen in the 'darkroom' next to the mission control room at JPL in Pasadena.  The screen displays important information to aid the operations team.  Since we can’t see what is going on at Mars, engineers use special software that re-creates what will be happening there when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter enters Mars' orbit.  The screen in this image is split in half and the left half features the perspective from the Sun looking at Mars and the MRO spacecraft, entering orbit around the planet.  The right half screen perspective is as if we are watching the activity from Earth. Image to the right
During the operational readiness tests, the team uses helpful software that simulates what's happening at Mars.
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With such a critical event approaching, engineers are reminded of the enormity of March 10. They have learned the hard way that Mars is no minor leaguer, so they’ve conditioned their star player for one of its biggest challenges.

"Orbit insertion is 'make it or break it' time. You either do it or you don't, and if you don't, you're done,"said Schulz. "We're making sure that the spacecraft has the best shot of making it into orbit around Mars."

More at Mars Rovers or Mars Exploration Program .