Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Research: Mars Rover - Inspiration, Lingo, and the Everyday

As you know, one of my WIPs is a YA sci-fi. So when an engineer from the NASA Mars Rover project spoke at the University here in New South Wales last week, obviously I had to jump on the opportunity to geek out with some fellow earth-and-space exploration fans!
Real World Sci-Fi: Mars Rover

I was rushing out the door and almost didn't take my notebook with me - thinking "well my story isn't really about little robot digging machines." But then I ran back and got it, and I was so glad I did. And it got me to thinking about the importance of different kinds of research.

'Research' for Inspiration: 
(It's not just about getting the facts right!)

Ok, so it IS really important to research for facts-sake. There's a great post about that this week over at One Ya Editor. But research can also be about getting inspired. Maybe you go to a talk, or visit a city, or read a book, or consult an expert, or go beachcombing. Maybe a bunch of what you see and hear and experience isn't directly relevant to your book. But either way, exploring new territory does help you see the world from a different perspective.

Research for the little 'Daily-Life' Details: 

I learned so much at the Mars Rover talk, and a bunch of what I learned didn't have much to do with the Mars Rover project or even the science behind it. It was more about the people and their lives and relationships while working on the project. And this insight was just as fascinating! A smattering of fun facts:

  • Martian Time - One of the engineers had his family live on the "Mars clock" during the project.
  • Inter-Office Conflict - The engineers and the scientists had an ongoing 'tug-of-war' deciding whether to land in a place that was safe (flat) or a place that was interesting (Mars equivalent to the Grand Canyon)
  • Even the Big-Timers Get Nervous - The director was in such shock after the successful landing that he had to physically shred his non-victory speech so he didn't accidentally read it to the press.

Research for the background Lingo: 

Mars Rover's shrinking Landing Ellipse
There's a ton of vocab that every profession takes for granted. So while my Environmental Science background had me tuned in when they were discussing alluvial fans, there was a lot of new lingo I learned! All great stuff for a some realism to the dialogue and description in a sci-fi story!

  • Landing Ellipse - the oval of uncertainty re: rover landing location
  • Science Payload
    • Everything brought to Mars is a "payload" - the key bits in this case being scientific equipment
  • "Rad Hard" Computers
    • Radiation hardening is important for microchips headed through space - so that they aren't damaged by intense cosmic rays
  • Mars 'Planetary Protection Program'
    • Everything headed to Mars is irradiated so if we were to colonize, we wouldn't end up with the same weeds we find in Florida.
  • The Pat Down
    • When rover Curiosity landed, it gave itself a "pat down" much like we would after picking ourselves up from a fall.
  • Other random phrases: biological potential, biomarkers, cruise/approach/entry/descent, environmental characterization, hand lens imager.
  • More Lingo Here!

And of course, this post would be completely incomplete without a shout-out for the
Cool Things to Find video, with vocals by my fellow islander, the lovely Cara Peacock! *waves*


  1. I'll be the first to admit that research is the thing I hate most about being a writer besides editing. Which is why I leave the sci fi to others! I love reading it as it's so interesting but writing it would just about kill me!

  2. I agree that research can be fun, especially when you're really passionate about that subject like you are. I find all of this intriguing, though the closest I've ever gotten to science is biology class and the occasional alien movie. :)



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