Work from home: NASA Edition!!

While everyone is spending their time finding what to watch next on Netflix losing their forbearance due to that “#quarantinelife”, engineers at NASA are busily expanding and maintaining humanity’s expedition to space and other planets.

Last Tuesday, a team of engineers sat in front of their computers, monitoring a spacecraft as it maneuvered around Bennu (an asteroid 140+ million miles from Earth). They conducted an important interplanetary dress rehearsal, overseeing the spacecraft through many of its operations that it’ll do in August when it attempts to scoop up 60g of rocks from the asteroid’s surface. 

They pulled off the entire event home. “It was a skeleton crew that was supporting the event in person, compared to what was originally planned,” Mike Moreau, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told The Verge.


Moreau is part of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, tasked with grabbing a sample of the asteroid Bennu and bringing it back to Earth for study. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched in 2016, the team planned for this particular dress rehearsal for more than a decade. And despite all the trouble, the rehearsal went off swiftly without a hitch, just the difference being instead of doing it from the command center they did it from their couch at home!

During the practice session, OSIRIS-REx got closer to Bennu than ever before. This paved the way for OSIRIS-REx to get right next to Bennu’s surface in August and scoop up 60g of rocks from a crater. Though the engineers were thrilled with the results, the unexpected circumstances made it a bittersweet situation.“We’re hopeful that by August, we’ll all be able to gather together and actually celebrate the actual sample collection event”, says Lauretta. 

As all of NASA’s centers have instituted mandatory telework policies, with some exceptions for essential personnel. Which includes people who are tasked with calculating commands for interplanetary space probes and navigating rovers on other planets.

Though for some the transition was a bit awkward at first since operating a spacecraft often relies on ample amounts of in-person communication. That’s been the case for Carrie Bridge, who works as a liaison between scientists and the engineers who operate NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Every day, she talks with scientists all over the US about the operations they’d like the rover to accomplish, and then she relays those desires to the engineers who navigate the rover. Normally, her job includes her just walking over to the engineering team at NASA’s JPL in Pasadena, California, to coordinate the rover’s movements for the day, you know a run-of-the-mill job!!

NASA work from home
Carrie Bridge | Image: The Verge

Now, that entire routine has been moved online. She says she has about 15 to 20 chat rooms open for all of the engineers and rover planners — not to mention con-calls with scientists across the country.

One of the lead that Bridge communicates with is Matt Gildner, who also coordinates all the commands for Curiosity from his studio apartment in Los Angeles. He and his team started testing, remotely working back in mid-March when “the writing was on the wall” about the COVID-19 pandemic, he says to The Verge. He started coordinating everything they’d need at home, including headsets, monitors, cables, and obviously 3D glasses (Who knew operating a rover can be fun ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). Curiosity sends back 3D images of the Martian terrain, which the rover planners, engineers observe as 3D meshes, to simulate how the rover will interact with the environment when it moves.

“I’m at home now, and I have all my headsets on as I talk to multiple audio channels, put on my red-blue glasses and evaluate parts of a drive that we’re planning for a few minutes as part of our planning day,” Gildner tells The Verge. “I have a nice desk set up and I’ve got all my houseplants around me, dual monitors, and a good keyboard and mouse headset stand. And this is working out just fine.”

NASA work from home
Matt Gildner | Image: NASA

Though someone needs to physically be at mission control at JPL in order to send Curiosity the commands from Gildner and his team. That person sends commands out to the Deep Space Network which is an array of large radio antennas on Earth, which then beam the commands to the rover (SCIENCE, right!!).

“Work is a nice escape from everything that’s going on, especially when you’re working on a spaceflight project,” Gildner says “You feel like you’re doing something that is very worthwhile that humanity appreciates, and right now that’s important more than ever, I think.”

And here you are, struggling to choose something on Netflix, LIFE !!!

Source: The Verge

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