With the rover Curiosity days away from landing on the Red Planet, Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Matt Heverly is getting ready to work on Mars time.
A day on Mars is roughly 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth, so each day, Heverly will come to JPL 40 minutes later than the previous day.
When Mars' rotation is in sync with Earth, he will start a normal shift at around 7 a.m. As Mars and Earth become out of sync, his schedule will become irregular and hectic. “Having to do that with day care pick-up and drop-off with little kids, it's going to be crazy,” said Heverly, a father of two.
The new schedule starts right away. The rover is set to land on Mars' Gale Crater around 10:31 p.m. on Aug. 5. Heverly will start work a few hours later, ready to drive the rover to a safe location if it lands on a slope or on top of a pile of rocks.
“We're there for contingency purposes,” he said. “If everything looks great, I'll probably go home and sleep and spend some time with my kids.”
Curiosity probably won't move at all for a few weeks, according to JPL engineers who want to ensure the rover lands in a safe location before it drills for soil samples and explores the terrain.
Heverly and Matt Robinson, the lead robotic arm rover planner, are busy practicing with models of Curiosity at JPL's Mars Yard.
Like a baby taking its first steps, the rover's first stroll on Mars is expected to go slowly. Heverly will wiggle the wheels, then Robinson will wiggle the arm.
“The arm has been bottled up for nine to 10 months,” Robinson said. “It's going to stretch and make sure all the motors and actuators behave like we expect.”
While the spotlight is now on the engineers who built and are directing the craft, deputy project scientist Joy Crisp said she's scrambling to prepare for the landing, when the research will begin.
“A lot of people mistakenly think, ‘Oh, you're cruising to Mars, that's easy,'” she said. “‘What are you doing? You must be kicking back, waiting.'”
Crisp said the team working on the Mars mission recently ran through dress rehearsals of the landing. They had to pretend they were on Mars and choose where the rover would travel without cheating and peering into the test area, she said.
Crisp previously worked on the Spirit, Opportunity and Pathfinder missions. This one is more of a challenge, she said, and the adrenaline and fear factor are heightened.
“Each day we get out of the elevator and there's a sign telling us how many days are left,” she said. “Each time I see it now and it gets smaller, I just kind of go, ‘Oh, my goodness!'”