Twelve members of NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover science and engineering team — the team responsible for the rover’s operations on the surface of the Red Planet — took to the social news website Reddit on Thursday to answer users’ questions about the mission.
Despite being bombarded by hundreds if not thousands of questions, the Mars Curiosity team members didn’t disappoint, rapidly and candidly answering questions ranging from everything about the plan for the rover’s activities on Mars to their own computing and smartphone preferences.
TPM has compiled a list of some of the most interesting responses to come out of the live question-and-answer session (known on Reddit as an “AMA” short for “ask me anything”).
NASA would tell the public ASAP if it found evidence of life
The Mars Curiosity Rover mission is designed to check to see if Mars ever maintained conditions of habitability — the ability to support life. It’s not designed to search for life on Mars per se, or even evidence of that life. Still, if that bombshell were to occur while on the mission, NASA would tell the public as soon as it had verified the evidence, according to Keri Bean, a scientist working on the Martian environment and the rover’s twin mast cameras, or Mastcam.
As Bean wrote:
“Every science hypothesis is vetted among the team, and we would want to make sure we were absolutely certain it was life/fossils/etc. before releasing it to the public. But we absolutely would release this information, once we had sufficient evidence and it was agreed upon among the science teams! We follow this procedure for all of our interesting finds.”
In addition, another team member also pointed out that the Curiosity scientists follow the guidelines set out by the NASA Office of Planetary Protection, which itself complies with a 1967 United Nations treaty to minimize contamination and damage of other planets and bodies.
The Curiosity rover is unlikely to ever leave its landing site, Gale Crater
NASA scientists have been understandably proud of performing the most accurate landing of an unmanned robotic spacecraft yet, with the Mars Curiosity Rover touching down just one-and-a-half miles away from its precise landing target, an amazing feat given the sheer complexity and unaccountable factors involved in descent, such as Martian weather.
The pride makes even more sense now, given the Curiosity team’s admission on Reddit that the rover is unlikely to ever leave the area immediately surrounding its landing site, a 96-mile-wide depression known as Gale Crater, which scientists believe could have retained liquid water — and thus, offered increased chances of supporting life — on ancient Mars.
As Steve Collins, the rover’s cruise altitude and control systems engineer, wrote in response to a user question: “Probably won’t leave Gale crater. It’s huge! and there is plenty of interesting science to do there.”
Specifically, NASA is aiming to drive the rover from its current position on the edge of the crater over to one of the major features of its interior, a 3.4-mile high mountain known as Mount Sharp, where the Curiosity team wants to sample rocks and soil for clues as to the history of Mars’ climate and geology.
The Curiosity team prefers Macs to PCs
When asked by a user the simple question “Mac or PC,” Curiosity’s fault protection engineer Magdy Bareh responded from a joint account: “In this room: 12 Mac, 3 PCs.”
Specifically, the science and engineering team appears to favor Apple Macbook Pro laptops, based on a photo they provided during the Reddit AMA.
Other members of the larger Curiosity team also seem to favor Apple Macbook Pros, according to a screenshot captured by a Reddit user of NASA’s live feed of the entry, descent and landing phase process on August 6.
At the time of this article’s publication, the team had not clarified on Reddit why they preferred Macs to PCs, nor what specific operating system they were using.
There’s an app for that (“that” being telling time on Mars)
For laypeople following the Mars Curiosity Rover mission, it may often seem that NASA is working with incredibly precise and advanced technology. And while that’s true in many respects, it’s also worth noting how much basic consumer technology powers the Mars Curiosity Rover mission as well, in small but critically important ways.
Take for instance, the need to tell accurate time on Mars. The Curiosity team typically reports their activities on the surface in terms of “Sols,” which is short for Martian solar day. While quite similar to an Earth day in terms of the time it takes the planet to do a complete rotation, a Martian sol is actually 39.5 minutes longer than an Earth day. Yet each Martian day is still broken up into smaller units of time like an Earth day: 24 hours, 60 minutes per hour, 60 seconds per minute. But the Martian seconds last slightly longer than those on Earth.
While timekeeping on Mars used to involve custom-built, quartz watches, members of the Mars Curiosity team, have, like many of today’s young people, gravitated toward using their smartphones instead.
Asked whether the Mars Curiosity team had “watches that run on mars time,” surface systems engineer Eric Blood told Reddit: “Some of us do, but a lot of us have iPhone and Android apps with Mars time.”
In a separate answer to a question about Mars time, Bareh noted: “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.”
Bareh also added that the adjustment process to Martian time: “is a bit painful….we re-program our alarm clocks every day.”
The Mars Curiosity Rover lacks lights and a microphone
Unlike the previous stationary probe, the Mars Phoenix Lander, which landed on the Red Planet in 2009, the Mars Curiosity Rover doesn’t have an onboard microphone, as Keri Bean, the scientist in charge of the rover’s twin mast cameras, or Mastcam, explained: “We took a microphone on the Phoenix Mars Lander, and we turned it on but essentially heard nothing (white noise) so it was never released. We don’t really need it for any experiments.”
Another unspecified team member noted in a separate answer that the rover, which is nuclear powered, also lacks onboard lights: “There are no lights on the Rover. It utilizes the night time to recharge the batteries to drive and explore during the day to take advantage of the day time.”
Correction: This post originally incorrectly stated that the length of a Martian sol, or day, is determined by the planet’s orbit, when it fact, as is the case with all planets, the length of the day is determined by its rotation. In addition, the post incorrectly stated that 14 NASA scientists and engineers participated in the Reddit AMA, when in fact, only 12 did. We have corrected the errors in copy and regret them.