Just like people all over the world, NASA’s scientists are working remotely.
NASA’s team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been operating the Mars Curiosity rover from home. Curiosity landed on the red planet in 2012 and has been there ever since. The $2.5 billion mission to determine if the planet is inhabitable has the rover searching for organic compounds.
“I never really imagined that we could be doing rover operations from home, all split up and not centralized in one place,” JPL systems engineer Ashley Stroupe told the Associated Press.
In March, NASA had headsets, monitors and essential equipment delivered to its workers’ homes. But the JPL team is a very “tight-knit” group according to Stroupe, and working separately has had its issues.
“We do rely a lot on being able to communicate with each other and share what we’re doing and sort of checking in with all of the different roles,” she said.
It takes roughly 20 people to program the sequence of one rover action. The process requires developing and testing commands while communicating with team members. JPL uses video conferences and online messaging apps like most workplaces but Stroupe, however, misses the human interaction.
“We can look at each other’s screens, we can talk directly to each other and talk through and try to work out any questions or concerns that we may have,” Stroupe said. “And that proximity really is a benefit, but we have managed to replicate that mostly on a separate teleconference line.”
The JPL team is spread worldwide so workers, like Scott McLennan in Oxford, have had to adjust their life schedule. McLennan begins work at 4 p.m. and ends after 10 p.m. because JPL operates in California’s timezone. NASA might be doing extraordinary work but its work-from-home hiccups are as banal as any other company’s struggles.
“Some people’s home network wi-fi bandwidth can be a limiter,” Stroupe told the Associated Press. “Sometimes it can get a little slow just from transferring it over the network. And because everyone’s at home now, the networks are being taxed even more than they normally would be.”
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