Intense discussion, various viewpoints, chairs being scooted around, slightly raised voices, and eventual consensus: just a typical meeting of scientists in the lab; in this case a rover lab at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The difference, though, was that this group was composed of students from four countries around the world who were planning simulated scientific tasks for exploring the surface of Mars. One of the targets they chose for analysis was a rock that they nicknamed "Pebbles." Only this rock isn't on the red planet; it is located in the JPL Mars Yard, an outdoor test facility that approximates Mars terrain located away from the rover lab. And after the mission, the students were able to visit "Mars" and actually see the rover used to conduct the exercise and "Mars rocks".
Student navigators selected by The Planetary Society as part of their Red Rover Goes to Mars program recently visited JPL to participate in a simulated mission operations exercise. They were able to experience the drama and excitement of a mission to Mars "up close and personal," as do scientists and other mission team members currently preparing for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission.
From a simulated mission control room, the students put the Field Integrated Design and Operations (FIDO) robotic rover through its paces in the JPL Mars Yard. Operations focused on short distance driving, trenching into soil using a FIDO wheel and taking images using a camera on the FIDO robotic arm. Students were able to participate in the process of characterizing exposed sediments using imaging and spectroscopy. Using training prepared by The Planetary Society, students had previously studied physics and geology and participated in on-line exercises to prepare them to interpret what they would see through the rover's sensors.
"It was interesting," said Dr. Eddie Tunstel, FIDO lead engineer and JPL point-of-contact for the visit. "The discussions were conducted just as rover mission scientists do here when planning tasks. Their enthusiasm is great - I noticed many members of the FIDO team dropping by just to observe the exercise."