The Reddit “AMA” with the Mars Curiosity Team

Over on Reddit today, the members of the Mars Curiosity team did an “Ask Me Anything.” The list of participants included:

Bobak Ferdowsi (aka “Mohawk Guy”) – Flight Director

Steve Collins aka “Hippy NASA Guy” – Cruise Attitude Control/System engineer

Aaron Stehura – EDL Systems Engineer

Jonny Grinblat aka “Pre-celebration Guy” – Avionics System Engineer

Brian Schratz – EDL telecommunications lead

Keri Bean – Mastcam uplink lead/environmental science theme group lead

Rob Zimmerman – Power/Pyro Systems Engineer

Steve Sell – Deputy Operations Lead for EDL

Scott McCloskey -­ Turret Rover Planner

Magdy Bareh – Fault Protection

Eric Blood – Surface systems

Beth Dewell – Surface tactical uplinking

Below are a selection of questions/answers which I found to be most interesting.

Q. Since the Martian Day is 24 hours, 40 minutes, 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, do the JPL scientists and engineers live their lives on Martian days to stay in sync?

A. Yes. All of the operators (engineers, scientists, drivers, planners) live on Mars time, by shifting the schedule +40 minutes each day. This is order to maximize the efficiency of each sol.

On the computers aboard Curiosity:

Q. The processor you guys used feels ancient to me. How did you guys program on it? Is it only “CPU-instructions” or was there some higher level programming for it?

A. You are right that the processor does feel acient. Our current smartphones are more powerful. The reasoning for this is three-fold. First of all, the computer was selected about 8 years ago, so we have the latest and greated space certified parts that existed then. Second of all, it was the most rubost and proven space grade processor at that time. Thirdly, in order to make a processor radiation hardened it requires lots of tricks on the silicon that is not conducive to making it fast. Given that, it does not run any GUIs and can just focus on raw programming, and actually gets a lot done. All of the programming is done in C, and our toolchain is very similar to programming on any platform.

[Editor’s note: see this previous post about Curiosity’s 2MP cameras]

I was surprised by the answer to this question:

Q. How many of you have PhDs?

A. None of us in the room (14 of us).

And the best food-for-thought question came courtesy of Reddit user Terrik27:

Q. What are your thoughts on the quote by Carl Sagan: “If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.” If we found Martian microbes, would we declare the planet a ‘nature preserve’? Would that mean no more missions there at all, or only scientific missions?

A. We abide by a set of planetary protection guidelines that you can read more about here. The groundwork:

1. All countries party to the treaty “shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.”

2. In accordance with the NASA policy, requirements are based on the most current scientific information available about the target bodies and about life on Earth. The Planetary Protection Officer requests recommendations on implementation requirements for missions to a specific solar system body, or class of bodies, from internal and external advisory committees—but most notably from the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council

3. If the target body has the potential to provide clues about life or prebiotic chemical evolution, a spacecraft going there must meet a higher level of cleanliness, and some operating restrictions will be imposed. Spacecraft going to target bodies with the potential to support Earth life must undergo stringent cleaning and sterilization processes, and greater operating restrictions.

4. Careful mission design and planning are essential to meeting this requirement. For example, at the end of an orbiter mission the spacecraft may be placed into a long-term orbit so that radiation and other elements of the local space environment can eliminate any Earth microbes that might be onboard. After navigation considerations are taken into account, missions must meet stringent cleanliness requirements. Spacecraft and their components must be cleaned very carefully, and sometimes sterilized. After cleaning, spacecraft are tested to ensure that cleanliness requirements have been met and can be maintained until launch.

Also, props to the Curiosity team for liking Bill Nye the Science Guy, which I watched religiously as a kid as well.

You can dig through the entire AMA right here.

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