Because his job involves driving around on Mars all day, Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres is glad he no longer has to make a cross-country commute to get home.
Over the last two months, control of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity has gradually shifted from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to the Ivy League school in upstate New York.
It's a sign of the mission's success, said Squyres, the project's principal scientific investigator, who spent the last year flying back and forth between New York and California as he guided the effort.
NASA has twice extended the $280 million mission, which was designed to seek geological clues about whether ancient Mars had water. The original mission was planned for 90 days but the six-wheel rovers have surprised scientists with their durability.
"It's still not really a normal life but there's more of a semblance of it than before. I get to see my family at the end of the day," Squyres said.
On Thursday, Squyres and his team of researchers at Cornell and six other sites across the country planned a day of picture-taking by Opportunity on Friday, its 279th day on Mars. Spirit has been there 22 days longer.
The planning and operations that must occur twice each day now are directed from a high-tech conference room on the fourth-floor of the Space Sciences Building at Cornell — where the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan once fervently dreamed of reaching into the cosmos.
There are five scheduled meetings daily for each rover conducted via computer and telephone links. Despite separate operating teams for each rover, researchers often switch back and forth. On a good day, those meetings run for six hours. On a bad one, they can last 12 hours or more, Squyres said.
"What characterizes this mission is that what we do each day depends on the day before. You can't plan ahead. You have to look at what you learned yesterday to plan tomorrow," he said.
The Cornell team numbers 28, including fellow astronomer-professor Jim Bell, the designer and lead researcher for the mission's panoramic cameras, and 15 graduate and undergraduate students. The rovers together have already sent to Earth some 50,000 images.
"It's very gratifying. You see the beauty of another planet and get a feeling of exploration," said Elaina McCartney, a senior researcher who programs the computers to run the rovers' cameras. "It's a dream job."
Since landing on opposite sides of Mars in January, the rovers have found circumstantial evidence of past water activity in several locations.