Seeing Like a Rover: How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars

Seeing Like a Rover: How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars

by Janet Vertesi

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In the years since the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit and Opportunity first began transmitting images from the surface of Mars, we have become familiar with the harsh, rocky, rusty-red Martian landscape. But those images are much less straightforward than they may seem to a layperson: each one is the result of a complicated set of decisions and processes involving the large team behind the Rovers.

With Seeing Like a Rover, Janet Vertesi takes us behind the scenes to reveal the work that goes into creating our knowledge of Mars. Every photograph that the Rovers take, she shows, must be processed, manipulated, and interpreted—and all that comes after team members negotiate with each other about what they should even be taking photographs of in the first place. Vertesi’s account of the inspiringly successful Rover project reveals science in action, a world where digital processing uncovers scientific truths, where images are used to craft consensus, and where team members develop an uncanny intimacy with the sensory apparatus of a robot that is millions of miles away. Ultimately, Vertesi shows, every image taken by the Mars Rovers is not merely a picture of Mars—it’s a portrait of the whole Rover team, as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226156019
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/22/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 38 MB
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About the Author

Janet Vertesi is assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University.

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Seeing Like a Rover

How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars

By Janet Vertesi

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-15601-9


Where Do Images Come From?

Planning a Day on Mars

"JPL, are you on the line?" The sound of ringing telephones punctuates the darkened room in the middle of the astronomy building at an Ivy League university, where a local group of Rover team members gather around a conference table. Screens are everywhere: a ring of computers lines the room, topped with official signs labeling them "Pancam PUL" or "Pancam PDL," a large hanging screen on one wall displays a projection of video conference activities, and it seems everyone in the room has brought a laptop. Visible on the projector screen, their colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory file to their seats around a U-shaped table in a bright, spacious room with a model rover in the center, facing a series of screens onto which shared images are projected and distributed online. Bleeps sound on the teleconference line as team members phone in from offices, cars, or coffee shops around the world. This is the daily meeting of the Science and Operations Working Group—the SOWG—at which the scientists and engineers on the team make decisions about what the rover should do the next day.

Crafting a plan for each Mars Exploration Rover mission robot is a dynamic, collective, and carefully managed art that balances a variety of competing factors. The rovers do not conduct science or see by themselves. Each day they receive detailed instructions from their human team on Earth about where to go and what to do. And though Rover team members joke about getting the "keys to the rover," there is no joystick that controls real-time operations. Because it can take up to twenty minutes for a signal to reach the planet, the team communicates with its rovers only once a day, sending one to three days' worth of commands at a time ("uplink"), and simultaneously receiving the data from the rovers' successful activities the day before ("downlink"). As a team member explained to me, "We're working on the Martian night shift."

Like all spacecraft, the rovers have only so many bytes, hours, and watts available on board with which to take and store images and transmit them to Earth. The SOWG meeting, usually convened once a day for each rover, is the place where scientists and engineers must balance several competing pressures and produce a plan for both rovers' activities on Mars the following Martian day, called a sol. The goal of this morning meeting is to produce a plan that will be uploaded to each rover at day's end, with a sequence of observations and drive directions that will direct its activity on Mars. Because surface situations change daily and new scientific questions may arise on the spot, this detailed daily planning ensures that the rover wakes up to a complete list of requested activities, compiled and negotiated day to day, with no bytes to spare.

Despite the dynamism of managing a wheeled vehicle on Mars, the SOWG meeting is also highly routine, ritualized, and practical. With its tightly sequenced and adhered- to combinations of reports, discussions, and statements, the meeting is a refined interaction ritual that organizes social activity on Earth even as it achieves the goal of producing robotic activity on Mars. As I will describe, the ritual character of the SOWG meeting makes certain resources and interactions available to team members as they work together each day, reinforcing and reproducing their organizational commitment to consensus. Referring to both the tightly scripted procedures and the need to satisfy multiple groups and different interests, one team member described the meeting to me as "a finely tuned little dance that we do."

But the work of managing the rover is also the work of managing the team. The ritual pattern of SOWG interactions enforces and reproduces the local norms that govern participation on the Rover mission. Activities, roles, and even specific conversations are enacted daily through video and teleconference links to carefully manage rover health and activity and produce a plan for each robot within an hour. These ritual framings, in turn, shape team negotiations and the eventual observations the robots perform. In particular, the plan cannot be approved and implemented until all team members at the SOWG meeting achieve consensus. Images of Mars, enrolled and produced through these interactions, constitute and reflect this social order as well.

Into the SOWG: "A Finely Tuned Little Dance"

"Can I get a roll call on the Meet-Me line?" asks the SOWG Chair, kicking off the meeting exactly on the hour, according to the clock on his computer. Remote participants state their names on the teleconference ("Meet-Me") line as the engineers file to their seats in the room reserved for Rover operations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. At the base of the U, a row of desks is reserved for the Rover Planners, specialist engineers who are responsible for producing the code that commands the rovers. A Mission Manager, the engineer who maintains oversight over the rover's operations for the day, is also in the room, as well as an engineer whose sole focus is the rover's status, keeping track of its changing solar power situation or communications needs.

The SOWG participants' tightly delineated roles include specific tasks and responsibilities. Around the U-shaped table at JPL are blue placards that identify the liaisons from each of the rover's Athena suite of instruments: the Pancams, the MiniTES, Mössbauer, Microscopic Imager, APXS, and RAT. These team members are responsible for the current status of their individual instruments, including whether yesterday's sequences ran to completion or sent back any data ("downlink"). They may also code the instructions for the plan that will be sent up to the rover at the end of the day ("uplink"). At the virtual table are the mission's Participating Scientists, with their staff or graduate students who maintain close involvement with the mission. All attendees at the meeting share online access to documents posted on a secure networked site and to a live video feed from JPL showing the SOWG room and two screens displaying Power Point presentations and Maestro, the rovers' in-house science activity planning software (fig. 1.1).

The Rover team's consensus model of operations does not mean the SOWG is a free-for-all or an endless meeting. On the contrary, the meeting's goals, structure, and roles are explicit and closely adhered to by team members. The purpose of the meeting, as they put it, is to produce a plan for the rover's activities that balances the robot's health and operational concerns, such as conserving its power or taking care not to cause damage, with scientific requests for images and other observations. Team members talk about this in terms of managing "rover health" alongside "squeezing out every last possible bit of science" from the robots. Because the SOWG also requires consensus by the end of the hour, this means balancing competing science or engineering needs, maintaining strong working relationships between team members, and keeping the peace in case of disagreement.

The meeting is presided over by the SOWG Chair, a position that rotates among a select few scientists on the team. The Chair is responsible for moving the team from an analysis of the downlinked data, indicating where the rover is and how it is doing, to a plan contingent on that analysis that will be uplinked to that rover at the end of the day for execution over the next sol. One SOWG Chair, James, explained his job to me as balancing the details of the daily plan with long-term expectations, "trying to make sure that you can dovetail the engineering and the science requirements" and "trying to get a rhythm where you cover some distance, stop and do scientific analysis and observations, then cover some more distance." The tensions he points to lie at the heart of the planning. Rover team members balance this tension by articulating two distinct planning categories: "strategic" and "tactical" operations. Strategic planning is producing long-term visions of what the rover should do over several days or months at a particular location. I will discuss this process in chapters 4 and 5. Tactical planning, on the other hand, is the job of the SOWG: determining precisely, to the minute, what the rover should do on Mars tomorrow.

Much like rituals that distinguish the sacred and the profane, the ritual of the SOWG meeting reinforces a strict distinction between the strategic and the tactical. No negotiation can take place in a SOWG meeting that actors judge more strategic than tactical in nature. For example, during a SOWG meeting where the day's plan concerned an approach to a nearby wind streak blowing off Victoria Crater, a scientist spoke up on the line to register his concern with driving into the crater based on the wind streak direction. While the topic—investigating a wind streak near the crater—was related to the rover's present position, other team members were uncomfortable with conflating those issues that would become rover interactions tomorrow (wind streak investigations) and those that fed into longer-term investigation (going into the crater). The SOWG Chair immediately intervened with the request to "reserve that discussion for today's End of Sol," the meeting where strategic plans are negotiated. The ritual distinction between the two was in full force.

Meetings ritually begin with a roll call to hear who is participating that day. But as roles rotate among team members, this also serves as a role call as participants state which operational role they are responsible for that day. Scientists clustered into Science Theme Groups called Atmospheres, Geochemistry, or Geomorphology each designate a member to be present at the SOWG meeting to represent their group's interests, concerns, and requests. Each instrument also has a Payload Uplink Lead and a Payload Downlink Lead (PUL and PDL) who closely follow the conversation and ask questions along the way to make sure group members understand what activities are requested of them and can question the requester before they spend the rest of the day writing commands for that operation. In addition to these specific liaisons, team members can also assume roles designed to encourage holistic thinking about the operation of the rover and the team in concert. The Keeper of the Plan (KOP) is in charge of entering observations into the rover's software, called Maestro, in sequence and as decided by the entire team. The Documentarian keeps a careful record of each observation, who requested it and why, and ensures that all commands and requests issued at the beginning of the day are accounted for by the end of the day. An engineer at JPL is responsible for considering how all the commands sequenced by different operators will interact, so that no observation or move will contradict or conflict with another. And a group of scientists are designated as Long Term Planners (LTPs), whose job it is to stay attuned to the strategic plan, keeping the bigger picture in mind while the daily meeting focuses on the immediate concerns of rover operation.

With so many different roles and responsibilities and so many potentially conflicting needs, the team has developed a particular practice for ensuring that all members feel included. They call this "listening." William, a SOWG Chair, stressed the importance of this practice to me with the local aphorism, "It could be that person is right only 10 percent of the time, but if it's that 10 percent, then you'd better be listening." The Chair engages listening at specific points in the meeting by directly inviting responses from team members, opening the floor to comments. For example, at the outset of a divisive discussion about where the rover should go, William initiated the conversation with, "I wanna hear everyone express their view." Members recognized this prompt and used it as the opportunity to speak up and declare other points of view, voice alternatives, and question assumptions.

Listening plays several important roles on the mission. It demonstrates to team members that whoever is in charge is merely a moderator and may not make a decision or close a topic of conversation without the assent of others. This reinforces the ideal of the flattened hierarchy and participatory engagement. It was also explained to me as a way of ensuring unilateral agreement through participation. After a SOWG meeting that I observed at his side, James explained:

At the end of the meeting you want to people to have a sense of ownership of the plan. That's why I kept asking at the meeting, "Are there any other comments, are there any other comments?" ... It's the whole empowerment thing, the team needs to feel like they're part of the process, and they're getting their two cents in and we're doing the right thing.... That's the most important thing, because if you wait to the end [of the meeting] and everyone comes in with their own discipline-oriented or pet peeve kind of things, then it's chaos, total chaos.

Inviting comments is "the most important thing" because it reinforces the idea that James, as Chair, is not calling the shots. It demonstrates his interest in eliciting minority perspectives to be heard, if not always acted on. Further, the result is a team that "feels like they're part of the process" and therefore will approve the resulting plan at the end of the day. Note that the "empowerment" afforded by structured moments of listening is juxtaposed to "chaos, total chaos," a breakdown in social order. James described this chaos in a further contrast:

There are kind of two ways to do the plan. One is that you send atmospheres guys, the geochemists, the geologists, the whatevers off separately to come up with their druthers, and then you make sure it fits. It won't fit. And there will be hard feelings. The other is [the Rover way] that you start off with a strategic [long-term] plan that people have bought into, and then you give them realistic constraints as a group, and then help them develop a tactical plan that fits into the strategic plan.... And where people's observations can't be fit in, you develop a liens list [a "to do" list] and make sure they understand that we're gonna get to them.

James's description highlights the importance of continued buy-in to the plan among team members, enacted through practices of listening that allow them to "get their two cents in" and "make sure they understand" that those requests have been heard. It is through these collectively oriented work practices that James ensures not only that there are no "hard feelings," but also that the SOWG meeting will remain orderly, without descending into "total chaos."

Formulating Place

Following roll call, routine presentations update everyone in attendance—whether in the room at JPL, in a car in Flagstaff, or at the kitchen table in Ithaca—on the rover's location, health, and immediate challenges. An initial, very brief statement from the SOWG Chair sets the stage for the sol:

We can see the rock target—and again, correct me if I've got any of this wrong—but it looks like we're at Cape Faraday, a small rock shown here. It is reachable and it is RATable [amenable to the Rock Abrasion Tool], and just to remind folks, the importance of making this measurement ... is that we got a very unusual chemical composition last time we imaged at a trench, and we want to find out if we're seeing ... a correlation between this rock and the ... high magnesium sulfate composition.

In another example, the Chair reminds the team of the previous day's failed observations so as to establish today's "tactical situation":

We had an IDD [Instrument Deployment Device, the robotic arm] fault when we went to [use the Microscopic Imager].... It looks like we got a bunch of MIs [microscopic images] that were not anywhere near the target and are still out of focus.... So my plan for today is to actually recover the MI [images] ... then bump back and look at [the target] with Pancam.... That's a summary of the current tactical situation this morning.

Statements such as "it looks like we're at Cape Faraday" do not imply impersonal geographical points on a map but refer to a local nomenclature shared among members of the team. Frequent use of "we" (instead of "us" versus "them") identifies all the participants on the line as members of the unified mission team, engaged in a collective process. Whether team members are physically in different rooms or have just finished a shift working with the other rover, the forms of talk in this report orient the team within the rover's frame of reference to establish a shared position with the robot on Mars and shared membership in the planning event. As such, they serve as opening statements that formulate a sense both of place on Mars and of participation in a conversation on Earth.


Excerpted from Seeing Like a Rover by Janet Vertesi. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Appendix A: Traverse Maps Conclusion 8. “Surviving Politically” and the Martian Picturesque 7. Constraints and “Lookiloo”: The Limits of Interpretation 5. Collective Visions 6. Visualization, Embodiment, and Social Order 4. “These Images Are Our Maps”: Drawing, Seeing, and Interacting 3. Image Processing: Drawing As and Its Consequences 2. Calibration: Crafting Trustworthy Images of Mars 1. Where Do Images Come From? Planning a Day on Mars Introduction: Seeing Mars and Drawing Mars Acknowledgments Contents Appendix B: Fieldwork Appendix C: Abbreviations Notes Bibliography Index

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