Today was the final day of remote operations from NASA Ames. In a timely experiment, the remote scientists tested a simulated time-delay mission to Mars. This is timely because the NASA/JPL Pathfinder mission is about to land a mobile robot on the surface of Mars exactly one week from today. The JPL robot called Sojourner will be the first mobile robot to land on the surface of Mars, and it will explore the area immediately around its landing site. The Viking probe, which landed on Mars during the 1970's, is also called a robot because it had an arm to dig into the soil, but it could not move itself around on the Martian surface.
But enough of the past and future, on to the present. Using Nomad, the NASA scientists explored a small area of the Atacama. One of their goals was to see how useful the panospheric camera would be to performing remote science. So they explored the same area twice, once without using the panospheric camera, and once with it. What this meant for the team on site is that the first time around, they only had to stay out of the small field of view of the science cameras; next time around, they had to hide themselves from the nearly all-encompassing view of the panospheric camera. The scientists were quite excited by the experiment, they continued studying the area and asking for the collection of samples well past sunset. It tends to get cold very quickly once the sun goes down, so the field team was a bit anxious for the mission to end. But we stuck it out, and at the end we were told the scientists gave us a cheer in appreciation.
Operations today were especially challenging. One of our team members got sick and had to be transported to a hospital in Antofagasta (he is mostly better now, and is already back in the field). We are all glad he is okay, but that necessity left us short three people and one truck, which delayed the start of operations. Compounding the delay, there were some difficulties with the computers in California as well. But in spite of these problems and the late start, we managed to accomplish most of the goals set for today. The NASA scientists are still very happy with results.
Every day we have somebody stationed up on the hilltop, and today was the first time I got to spend all day up there. We need to put someone there to watch over the equipment, keep a long-distance eye on the robot, and keep communications channels open (our VHF radios require line-of-sight over distances of several kilometers). Since the seasons are changing now, with winter just beginning, it gets very windy in the desert, especially on the hilltop. It's great fun trying communicate over the radio with dust blowing into your face and mouth at 40+ miles per hour. And it's also interesting trying to communicate by typing into a notebook computer, when the dust covers the screen seconds after you wipe it off. Typing with liner gloves isn't so bad when it's only windy, but after the Sun sets it gets cold quite quickly; and wearing real gloves leads to some interesting typos. One thing you learn is that it is better to lie down behind the gray storage case than to sit up straight in the wind; you stay warmer, and the wind doesn't blow your notebook computer shut nearly as quickly.
Now that the science week has ended (rather successfully, especially if you recall 25 June), we look forward to having Nomad accumulate lots of distance. We plan to have the Science Center visitors drive it over long distances every day for the remaining weeks of the Trek.