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Another Sol on the Job: Living on Mars Time with Mastcam-Z
*BEEP!!!!!* *BEEP!!!!* The awakening sound of the alarm clock rings out through the bedroom. It’s 4 pm and the dying late winter light bleeds in around the makeshift blackout curtains of repurposed bed sheets. It’s another beautiful evening on Mars. A team of Earth-bound Martians rise from their disrupted slumber and eagerly await to hear from their interplanetary emissary, a car-sized robotic explorer named Perseverance that recently completed a nearly 300 million mile cosmic trek to the Red Planet. Perseverance is clocking out after a hard Martian day’s work of zapping rocks, collecting images, and testing instruments while checking out the new digs at Jezero crater, the ancient remnants of a 3.5 billion year old lake and a treasure trove of geologic clues that hold a vignette of Mars’ past. But for Perserverance’s team on Earth, the work is just beginning as they clock in for the Martian night shift and meticulously pour over the newly received data to prepare a new to-do list to send back to Perseverance before the Martian dawn. Tomorrow, the routine will be the same but to accommodate the approximately 40-minute longer Martian day (or “sol”) and continue working the Martian night shift, the team will rise and begin work 40 minutes later. It’s an otherworldly schedule for an otherworldly job. But for these scientists and engineers, it’s just another sol working on Mars.
Living on “Mars time” is a tradition for rover scientists and engineers that dates back to the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, which sent the first rover to the Red Planet. To maximize planning and efficiency during the first few months of the mission, the team would temporarily shift to a 24-hour, 37-minute Martian day to stay on the mission’s schedule and quickly process data and plan while the lander and rover slept. For that and other previous rover missions, the team would gather at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California for the first 90 sols before switching to a modified schedule and going back to Earth time. Because of the CoVID-19 pandemic, however, the majority of Perseverance’s team worked on Mars time remotely after landing, taking the “work from home” life to a whole new level. Due to the added fatigue and challenges of remote operations and working from home, the Perseverance team lived on Mars time for only about 70 sols before switching to a modified Earth time schedule.
The following are some personal perspectives from Mastcam-Z team members about their experience living on Mars time.
As a PhD student and collaborator on the Mastcam-Z and Mars 2020 science teams, this was my first experience living on Mars time. During the first 90 sols, I assisted with preliminary data analysis of Mastcam-Z images as a member of the downlink Science Support Team, and also participated in rover science planning while preparing daily summary reports as a Tactical Documentarian. While I was looking forward to the opportunity to live and work in person with the hundreds of scientists and engineers in California during the first 90 sols of the mission, I quickly learned to embrace the bizarreness and challenge of living on Mars time from home. Shifting almost a time zone each day allows for some rather odd experiences, like saying “good morning” and “good night” to my housemate in the same sentence, walking my dog at 4 AM, or watching an Indiana sunset while eating breakfast and accompanying Arlo Guthrie as he belts over the car radio “GOOD MORNING AMERICA HOW ARE YOU!” to the bewilderment of passersby. But despite a syncopated circadian rhythm and occasional bouts of jet-lagged delusion, it was a privilege and an experience of a lifetime to log in each day and work with and learn from hundreds of fellow Martians as we explored the profound unknowns of our universe one dark chocolate covered espresso bean at a time. I will never forget sharing the excitement (albeit virtually) of watching Perseverance successfully land at Jezero or seeing new Mastcam-Z images framing a Martian landscape begging to be explored. One of my favorite activities to do while living on Mars time was going on a walk in the predawn hours prior to a shift to catch a glimpse of a faint red dot rising above in the night sky. I liked imagining that somewhere on that red dot our robotic co-worker was tucking herself in for the evening and beaming back all the awesome adventures of the day, a humbling perspective and a gentle reminder that there was more work to be done.
I’m Eleni, I’m a PhD student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and a ‘Student Collaborator’ for Mastcam-Z. We were lucky enough to do a very small in-person (masked up!) landing day event at our university. It’s not quite how we originally pictured the landing day celebrations, but I was very grateful that the CoVID situation in Hawaiʻi allowed us to meet safely, and it was really fun watching such an historic moment with some of my teammates. I also distinctly remember watching the video from the descent cameras for the first time- it was breath-taking, and made me so excited for the next few decades of planetary science exploration. During the first 100 sols, I worked first as a Tactical Remote Ops Coordinator, and then as a member of the downlink Science Support Team for Mastcam-Z. Living on Mars Time was definitely an interesting and exciting experience; a rather funny but positive side-effect was that I was suddenly awake again at the same time as my family in England and Greece! It was nice to be able to call them after a shift, and share my excitement at being involved in such an awe-inspiring mission.
I’m fortunate to have been involved in all of NASA’s Mars rover missions to date, starting with the Sojourner rover on the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997. All of these missions have operated on “Mars time” for up to 90 sols (Mars days) after landing. I was a JPL employee during the Mars Pathfinder mission, when I had young children at home who didn’t understand why I was sleeping during the day sometimes. So it was difficult for me to balance mission operations duties with life at home as a father, but it was a very exciting time of my life. In 1998 I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to work for the USGS Astrogeology team, where I led the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Microscopic Imager science investigation. Because I was no longer living in Southern California, I spent the first 90 sols of the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions in 2004 sharing an apartment with other scientists on Mars time. This was much easier for me, as we were all “Martians” and covered the windows of our bedrooms so that we could sleep during the day as necessary. My kids were all in Flagstaff with my wife, happily continuing with their Earthling lives as usual, while I and other Martians worked our crazy schedules. My experiences during the first 90 sols of the Mars Science Laboratory mission in 2012 were similar, as again I was sharing an apartment with other MSL scientists. But because of the 2020 global pandemic, it was not safe to co-locate at JPL for the first 90-sols of the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission, so most of the science team has been supporting mission operations from home. This made Mars time more difficult for me than it was during the MER and MSL missions, even though my children are now adults and not living with us in Flagstaff anymore. My wife, who had been keeping a normal schedule, was kind enough to sleep in our spare bedroom when I had to get up early or work late into the night, but it still was not easy to cohabitate. In addition, it was harder to work tactical mission operations remotely, despite advances in internet and phone connectivity. For previous rover missions, it was helpful to be on the same floor at JPL with the rest of the science team and the engineers who lead operations, as we could more easily share ideas and solve problems. But the team has largely overcome issues with remote participation and the Perseverance mission has been going very well. I look forward to continuing remote operations now that the Perseverance team has transitioned from Mars time to a schedule that avoids overnight work!
I work as a contractor for the USGS Astrogeology Science Center as a Science Payload Downlink Lead (sPDL) for the Mastcam-Z cameras on the Perseverance rover. As an sPDL, I am involved in the daily operations of Perseverance, doing such tasks as evaluating and processing the image data we receive from the Mastcam-Z cameras, and helping to plan the details of upcoming observations for Mastcam-Z. This is my second experience working on Mars time. I did it 17 years ago when the rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004. I was much younger and single, and the lack of any other commitments made it much easier. It was great fun and a unique shared experience with colleagues that created memories to last a lifetime. We would get off work at 7 AM and head to the Santa Anita racetrack to watch morning workouts and wind-down together. We would grab dinner at some all-night diner after getting off shift at 2 AM. This time, I found Mars time just as exciting, and while I missed the camaraderie of working with friends and colleagues, I made new memories with my family. I know my kids will remember this and talk about it their whole lives, and that is very special to me. My whole family was along for the ride. We hung black out curtains in my bedroom so I could sleep during the day when necessary. We had to make arrangements as a family to cover when Mom was unavailable either because I was on shift or I was sleeping at odd hours. Luckily, they all thought it was pretty great and were really supportive and helpful. Aside from my family, I had to remember to take care of personal things while living on Mars time too. I still needed to exercise, get groceries, pay bills, run occasional errands, etc. I found those things to be the most challenging. I easily got wrapped up in Mars time and the excitement of seeing new data from Perseverance each day. Even when I was not scheduled on shift, I could not just flip a switch and get my body back on Earth time. I still wanted to look at the latest data and listen to the science discussions and it takes several days to transition to a normal Earth schedule, especially when I have been working overnight on Earth, completely opposite of my usual Earth-time operation.
February 18, 2021, 9:55 pm CET, Berlin, Germany, Earth: touchdown confirmed! I am at the German Aerospace Research Agency’s (DLR’s) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, Germany, surrounded by TV cameras. For the past 45 minutes, I have commented on the Perseverance rover landing live in German national TV, and given interviews for the news. Fast forward to the next morning, 5:00 am: after landing celebrations and ~3 hours of sleep, my spouse, who is also a co-investigator on the mission, our dog, and I are in front of our laptops, ready for the very first science team discussion after landing. This marks the start into a life which will be largely controlled by what time it is on Mars. Our desks and kitchen counter nearly collapse under the load of several laptops, monitors, tablets and cell phones – our attempt to rig up a “mission control” in our flat. Despite my best intentions to switch to Mars time, I can’t neglect my other, earthly work responsibilities at DLR. So I do my best to combine Mars and Earth time, and the concept of day and night quickly loses its significance. Living on Mars time is like moving two time zones to the west every three days, causing both of us to feel constantly jet-lagged. Our shifts ‘on Mars time’ start at night hours in Europe to begin with, then gradually transition into daylight hours. Sometimes, I can afford 2-3 hours of sleep before starting my work day at DLR. Sometimes not. Sometimes Mars time and Earth time align for a few days, and it feels nearly ‘normal’ again. Due to the COVID pandemic, we both work from home, which makes it easier to take the occasional nap in between. Nevertheless, we quickly start to lose our sense of time. Which day is it? Which time? The ‘M2020 clock’ app tells us what time it is on Mars. Our colleague’s tired faces on the computer screens give us an idea about which time it is wherever they are. Our flat’s large windows help with a ‘reality check’. Knowing the weekday is not really important – there are no weekends on Mars, anyway. For the next few weeks, the voices of our team colleagues fill our flat, coming from the speakers of our laptops, as each of us is in teleconferences nearly all the time. Our days and nights are filled with exploring the wonders of Jezero Crater, and we are both very grateful that we can do this together. Our Cavalier King Charles girl Valli, aka “Mission Support Dog” is fortunately well trained and used to strange hours. She does her very best to comfort her two ‘hoomans’ on a mission. She demands to sit on our laps, or she lies by our feet, snoring. She reminds us to take a break for a walk around the block. Or she sits in front of our respective desks, trying to coax us to go to bed. Both of us, please. Now. Until the next work day on Mars – or Earth – starts. Sleep, eat, explore Mars, repeat. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.