MURFI goes to Canada

The UK Space Agency MURFI team haven’t been on their own testing Mars Rovers in Utah: we’ve shared the site with Rovers from Germany and Canada. In fact, it was the Canadian Space Agency CSA) who invited us along on this little jaunt in the first place.

Now that the MURFI team have successfully wrapped little up our “ExoMars-like” mission, we are moving on to a different phase of operations – joint working with the CSA. We’ll be collaborating with the Canadian “Can Mars” team both in the field, and in Operations.

So, for this reason two member of the MURFI operations team – Myself, Matt Balme (mission scientist) and Peter Fawdon (MURFI mapping and traversability guru) – have made the long trek to London Ontario to take up residence for a few days in the CanMars Mission operations centre.

The first thing we’ve noticed, apart from the jetlag, is that our Operations set-ups are very different, but that there are plenty of similarities. For example, CanMars has a much bigger team, split into “Planning” and “Science” sub-groups. The CanMars Operations centre is at Western University, in London Ontario and most of their team are based nearby. For MURFI, we had to drag people across the country each day or stay in hotels. A bigger team allows CanMars to put more people into the various roles, and means they can focus more on specific tasks – this is a good lesson for MURFI: we’ll hope to bring in more specialists to boost the team next time round!

The CanMars Science team in action

Another big difference is that their working day is split into two segments, an evening one from 7pm to 11pm, and another in the morning from 8am to 11am. This allows  them to send commands to the field team in the morning, and receive data back from them in the evening. Due to the time zone differences between UK and Utah, this wouldn’t have worked on MURFI, but in some ways the timezone difference was almost an advantage. We were able to get a whole morning of past-paced tactical planning done each day before the Rover had even “woken up”, which meant that every afternoon we could relax a bit and discuss the science at a more sedate pace.

One thing that is clearly similar is that, before starting off on the Rover trial, both team mapped the same regions using the same sorts of data. Today, we compared the geological maps both teams had made in ArcGIS  – MURFI’s Peter Fawdon and CanMars’ Zach Morse got into the comparisons for a mutual GIS love-in (appropriate as today is national GIS day!). Was good to see we we’d come to similar conclusions, too..

And this is the Can Mars planning team – we’re jealous of their large whiteboard!

Finally, as we talked the CanMars team through our mission, boasting of our triumphs and bemoaning the various data, technical, and IT-based gremlins that have beset us, it was great to see our Canadian colleagues nodding in agreement, and saying “yup, we had those problems too a few years back”. This is the fifth year they have run a Rover trial, and you can tell they have honed it to a fine art now. This is the first year we have run MURFI, so we have a little way to go to get things running the way we would like. Still, its encouraging to see that the various issues we’ve encountered can be solved by persistence, and this visit to the Canadian Ops centre has certainly given me inspiration and plenty to think about in terms of improving MURFI for next time.

MATT BALME – MURFI Mission Scientist at the CanMars Ops Centre, Western University, London, Ontario



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