CT Now

Visiting Curiosity scientists set to leave JPL, head home

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is about to get a little quieter.

Since Aug. 5, when the one-ton rover Curiosity landed on Mars, visiting scientists have worked out of the La Cañada Flintridge campus. They came from far and wide; from Spain, France, Virginia, New York.

But it was only a temporary arrangement, designed to establish connections with JPL employees who are working on the two-year mission.

During the first week of November, when Curiosity hits its 90th sol — or day — on the Red Planet, nearly 200 of the visiting scientists will return home.

“It's going to be a learning experience for both [JPL employees and visiting scientists],” said Nicole Spanovich, a JPL science operations team chief. “They have to learn how to interact with these team members over the phone.”

From their respective homes, scientists will continue to make contact with JPL team members remotely.

“It's very important that they can talk to each other [about Curiosity's progress],” Spanovich said.

Many scientists who were accepted to work on the mission are taking time off from jobs at other institutions and universities.

“The whole reason we have to go remote is we have such a long-duration mission,” she said. “They have lives and families and other jobs that they have to support.”

Scott McLennan, a geoscience professor at Stony Brook University in New York, is on sabbatical while working on the mission. Instead of flying back and forth between the two coasts like other team members, he decided to rent a house with four other scientists in Pasadena.

Spending three months in the city wasn't a tough transition for McLennan. A veteran of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars missions, he once spent six months at JPL. It was harder then, he said, because he had a young daughter at home. During this mission, he flew back to New York to help her return to college.

As a member of the long-term planning group, he looks ahead to Curiosity's surface trips. McLennan also analyzes the chemical composition of the Martian material the rover collects.

The biggest challenge of working away from JPL is being separated from a group of people who have formed a bond, he said. “You work very close with a lot of people, and you make a lot of good friends.”

It would be difficult to work remotely with people on such a mission before meeting them in person first, he added.

Sol 90 also marks the time when scientists and engineers working on the mission will make the transition from living on Mars time to living on Earth time.

A day on Mars is 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than a day on Earth, and scientists have worked unorthodox shifts since Curiosity's landing to test out the rover's equipment and start driving it while the sun is shining on the Red Planet. Now that Curiosity is zapping rocks, scooping soil and snapping scenic landscapes of the dusty planet, team members are beginning to work regular shifts.

The Sunday before election day, McLennan will fly back to New York. He has already planned one of the first things he'll do at home and on a 24-hour Earth clock: He'll vote.


Follow Tiffany on Google+ or on Twitter @LATiffanyKelly.

Copyright © 2016, CT Now