COVID-19 has added a new dynamic to standard mission prep as many members of the team work from home. Turns out managing spacecraft from afar isn’t exactly atypical for NASA.
On Fed. 18, the Perseverance rover is set to make its Martian debut after braving millions of miles of cosmic highway en route to the Red Planet. Over the years, NASA has successfully landed multiple rovers on our celestial neighbor, but the coronavirus pandemic has added a layer of complexity to standard mission preparation this go-around as many members of the mission team work remotely.
Turns out managing spacecraft from afar isn’t exactly atypical for NASA.
“We are pretty used to remote work because our spacecraft are pretty far away. So we’re already used to talking to things that aren’t anywhere near us,” said Cj Giovingo, a Mars 2020 mission systems engineer.
While Giovingo was “only partially surprised,” they were able to continue to conduct their jobs at home via laptop. Giovigno was surprised the team was able to remotely access testbeds for yet completed testing.
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In January, the team completed what NASA called a “COVID-adapted” mult-day mission simulation of the Martian landing operations. The team has successfully conducted three such “dress rehearsals for the landing,” according to Giovingo.
Although the format requires video chat, this virtual mission prep isn’t your standard Monday morning Zoom meeting.
“[We’re] at our homes, speaking on conference [calls], just like I’m speaking to you today and monitoring the telemetry from the spacecraft and making decisions about what commands we need to send and responding to any off-nominal behavior,” Giovingo said.
In some of these remote simulation scenarios, members of the team known as “gremlins” integrate “unexpected challenges” for the mission team, according to NASA.
“One of those dress rehearsals is what we call an off-nominal one. And so we had a special team that was in our testbed and injecting faults into the system, to test our systems team so that they could identify those faults and know how to respond to them,” Giovingo said.
As entry, descent, and landing activity lead, Giovingo will be on-site in the physical control room during Perseverance’s rendezvous with Mars although many others will operate remotely during this phase of the mission, they explained.
During previous mission landings, the NASA control room live stream has featured plenty of jubilation, hugging, high-fives, and lots of jumping. Needless to say, amid a modern plague, views from this year’s control room will look a bit different.
“Certainly, we won’t be hugging and things like that, but I think the natural emotion of the moment will take over, so we’ll see what kind of, you know, jumping and yelping we get out of folks with our N95 masks on.”
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On March 5, 2020, mere days before the World Health Organization officially characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, NASA announced that it had selected “Perseverance” as the name of its next Mars rover. Nearly one year after this announcement, the coronavirus pandemic continues to transform the way we work, live, learn, and even land spacecraft on distant planets.
“The [student] who chose the name Perseverance couldn’t have picked a better one for what we’ve experienced in the last two years,” Giovingo said.
Mere hours away from landing, there’s still plenty of cosmic highway, myriad craft reconfigurations, and no shortage of obstacles between the rover and Mars’ Jezero Crater, but the wait for touchdown and Perseverance’s first signal from Mars will soon be over.
“After six and a half years on this mission, I feel like Percy is an old friend of mine,” Giovingo said.
“We’ve been working together towards this really big goal and it’s taken a lot of time and a lot of effort and so just the relief of knowing that she’s there and safe and landed and ready for her next leg of the mission is something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time.”