Desert RATS..What is a “science backroom”?



In the photo you can see some of the team members from the Science backroom in Houston


By Dr. Sarah Noble

Sarah is a NASA geologist, and she is supporting the science backroom from the Netherlands in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA)


During the Apollo program, the astronauts had to learn a lot of geology in order to work on the lunar surface. The scientists who trained the astronauts wanted to remain involved in the mission and so they formed the first “science backroom,” a special room downstairs in the mission control building where they could monitor the astronauts on the lunar surface and communicate with them through Mission Control if they saw something they wanted to bring to the crew’s attention.


The Apollo science backrooms contained little more than a single black and white TV and a telephone to call Mission Control. Now scientists are used to interacting with data in real time and using that data to plan the next day’s science activities, like the Mars rover science teams. The Desert-RATS science team takes the best “lessons learned” from Apollo and robotic spacecraft operations and combines them.


Our Desert RATS science backroom is also in a room downstairs in Mission Control (we are across the hall from the ISS control room!), but unlike the Apollo backroom, we are operating with access to realtime data and video and interacting directly with the crew in the field.  For part of this campaign we also have a 2nd backroom set up in the Netherlands partnering with the European Space Agency at the European Space Research and Technology Centre.


The kinds of data that we have access to in the backroom includes live audio feeds from the crew (delayed 50 seconds because they are on an asteroid), video feeds (also delayed) from each crew member’s backpack as well as several video cameras including a “gigapan” camera on the rover, and more cameras inside and outside the “deep space habitat” or DSH.  We have GPS positioning of the rovers and the crew that are displayed in Google Earth.  We have geologic maps that were created for the mission from orbital imaging, like they would be in a real mission.  And we have all our individual geologic training to rely on.  All of these different types of data allows the backroom to follow along with the EVA as though we were in the field.  It’s as though each crew member has 9 trained geologists in their pocket as they go about their EVA.


In the science backroom, each team member has a specific role and job to do.  Some are following a specific crewmember as they make geologic observations and collect samples.  One is in charge of cataloging and prioritizing all the samples collected.  One is in charge of imaging, keeping track of all the cameras and even operating them when the crew is in the field.  We have a “Scicom”, the science equivalent of a “Capcom” that talks directly to the crew, and a science lead that keeps us all organized and coordinates with the flight director.


A typical day is about 12 hours long and is hectic and intense because we are keeping track of everything on the ground and observing what the crew is doing on the asteroid, and then on top of that, we are trying to make geologic sense of it all. 

Despite the long hours, we find it very rewarding to use our skills as scientists to enable meaningful science in the course of human exploration.


Image from the science backroom from the European Space Agency in the Netherlands.