Monday, June 20, 2011

The Sudbury Lunar Analogue Mission Wraps Up

The ROC-6 Rover plays tourist after a successful mission exploring the Sudbury Impact Structure. The rover is shown in front of the Giant Nickel in this photo from the Mission's Anablog.

I'm on the train back to Toronto from Mission Control for SLAM (the Sudbury Lunar Analogue Mission) and I have to say: it has been a stressful, yet rewarding, couple of weeks. In some ways I am reminded of how I felt following last year's DPS conference (as I expressed in a New Year's Eve Post). Certainly, I now feel more a part of the CPSX community than I did before. But what it really feels like is Phoenix Redux. Sure, it was only two weeks - with no Mars Time issues - but all the intensity was there. Now that it's over, I am a tad bit sad, but at the same time, I am proud of what we accomplished.

I played a significant role in this mission and to have it go well is extremely rewarding. That's a feeling I can bear repeating. As well, I discovered that I might have some leadership abilities I never realized before. It's a good day when I discover I still have the capacity to surprise myself.

Since I just finished writing a post for the mission's anablog, I will mirror that here (along with illustrations taken liberally from that source, since this is a retrospective of sorts). It really says everything that I'm feeling right about now:

Planning Manager’s Report: Congratulations on a Job Well Done!

Operations at Mission Control for the Sudbury Lunar Analogue Mission are now at an end. All the charts and pictures and tables posted to our walls have been removed. The change in the room is unsettling: Is this really the nerve center where we labored for the last two weeks to control a robot and do science from afar?

Things are heading back to normal and, while I will welcome the rest, I know that I will miss the mission come Monday. I will miss the energy of the team, the two-hour command cycles, maybe even all the Nutella available in the lunch-room. In short, I will miss the Mission because, even though it is only practice, it felt just like my experiences with real NASA and ESA missions.

Science Interpretation Manager Livio Tornabene leads a discussion in the Science Room centered around a newly acquired 360° Gigapan. Despite this mission being just for practice, some of the discussions about Science became highly involved!

I can tell you that even though the bright blue Sudbury sky is visible in almost every gigapan, we sometimes had to remind ourselves that the ROC-6 was not trundling along on the Moon. That is a credit to our team and I am proud of them, their work ethic and the seriousness with which they took their tasks. And though I will miss SLAM, I know that longing will be replaced with a feeling of accomplishment. It is a feeling I share with every other member of our very talented team, both in Mission Control and in the Field.

"The Road to Arthur," one of our favourite outcrops. Soft sand hampered the ability of the rover to get to this outcrop. This technical challenge was just one of many hurdles we were able to successfully overcome.

Some final statistics: by my count, we collected 18 samples, executed over 180 separate tasks, acquired more than 2 GB of data and traversed an astonishing 2.22 km over the two-week period. Not a single command cycle was lost to weather or to a break down in the process and structure of mission control. Every command cycle was filled with good science. The field team faithfully carried out our instructions and worked so hard that our drill corer broke on our last sample, collected late on Thursday Evening. This large number of samples collected allowed for a very appropriate triage that we hadn’t been sure we would get the opportunity to perform.

A white, tongue-like extension of the feature identified as "Merlin" is shown in the upper left of this image. Dubbed "Merlin's Beard" it is just one of five separate sampling sites within the extent of our travels. Note the circular hole from a drill core extracted on the left near the center line of the image.

Perhaps more importantly, we all came together as a team. I can’t begin to tell you how satisfied I am with the performance of that team, both as a process manager, and as an operations designer. As I told the team in an impromptu speech at the Thursday Debrief, our concept of mission control was and is nothing more than ink on paper – it was our team that brought it to life.

Over the week, we had our ups and downs.  As with the pressure-cooker of a real mission, both our successes and our failures felt magnified. All of us were tested and some relationships were strained. But where things broke down, each time we were able to pick up the pieces and put them back together better than they were before. By the end, the camaraderie was palpable.

In response to the light-hearted command "Step 1: Have lots of fun" the field team invents "gravel-boarding." Seen here is the return from the fun instrument.

Through this analogue experience we now have a richer knowledge of how science gets done on other worlds than we had at the start and we are a better team for it. We learned a great deal about how autonomous roving works and how different instruments perform in the field. We learned to be careful of “negative topography” (i.e. cliff edges) and soft sand. We learned that the 3D knowledge imparted by C2SM and LiDAR are valuable tools for both Science and Planning. Additionally, as an Analogue Mission, we learned at least as much from our failures as from our successes. This will make our Science even better in the next round.

The ROC-6 Rover shown from the bottom of a cliff near the waypoint  "The Great Beyond." Based on Imagery, we had judged a path to be navigable. Unfortunately, we thought we were seeing further than we were. Luckily, the rover's "hazard avoidance software" detected the problem and stopped us before we took a tumble.

So, as we say goodbye to SLAM, let’s not be saddened that our mission has come to an end. Instead, let us gather up our understanding and craft an even better strategy to answer the problems of a new Scenario and a new Landing Site.

All of our thoughts now turn from Sudbury to Labrador’s Mistastin Crater for the penultimate deployment of our Analogue Scenario.  I look forward to that challenge with anticipation. And I look forward to it with a newfound confidence in a team that, though they are volunteers, are the equal of the other teams with which I have had the honour to serve.

A sentiment left for me on the smart board of the PLAN room by the team prior to leaving for the field. I felt touched by this note. Again, thanks to all who participated!

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