How to drive the slowest vehicle in the solar system | Artificial intelligence

NASA engineer Keri Bean shares her dreams of driving a Mars rover, her fears that Opportunity won’t wake up and why NASA has grief counsellors on speed-dial

Keri Bean with a version of Mars rover Curiosity's mobility system

Keri Bean with a version of Mars rover Curiosity’s mobility

NASA/JPL/Mars Yard

ALREADY a space fanatic in high school, Keri Bean was at Space Camp when she saw the IMAX documentary Roving Mars. Seeing how much scientists on the rover missions cared about their distant charges, Spirit and Opportunity, Bean became determined to join the endeavour.

Today, Bean is a mission operations engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, training for what she sees as the world’s coolest job: driving a Mars Rover.

The Spirit and Opportunity missions were intended to last three months. Spirit went six years before giving up the ghost in 2010. Incredibly, Opportunity was going strong until June this year, when a planet-wide dust storm blocked sunlight from hitting its panels, putting it out of action. Only when the haze clears will Bean know if her dreams of driving Opportunity are forever dashed.

When did you last hear from Opportunity?

On 10 June, when a global dust storm covered Mars. The dust in the atmosphere has prevented Opportunity from charging her batteries. We get these dust storms every couple of Mars years, but we don’t usually lose all contact. This one is more intense. But all our modelling indicates that the rover will come back. In fact, we usually come out of dust storms with cleaner solar panels because of the wind blowing the dust off.

Travelling 45 kilometres in 14 years must make Opportunity the slowest in the solar system. How does driving it work?

We have a couple of different ways. You can send specific …

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