mars 2020 design simulations

simulating the future of Mars 2020 operations


The Mars 2020 scientists and engineers assess data from the rover in the Mars Yard looking for interesting rock features to drill. photo cred: Matt Heverly


“It is common sense to take a method and try it.
If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.
But above all, try something.”


--  Franklin D. Roosevelt




What is a Design Simulation?
In 2016, the Mars 2020 rover hardware isn't even assembled, yet engineers and scientists have to start thinking about how operators in the future (2021 and beyond) will operate the rover to fulfill science goals. Design Simulations are a developing practice on the Mars 2020 mission where engineers, scientists, and designers come together to simulate current models for how operators will control the Mars 2020 rover in the future. These simulations allow the mission to assess the current effectiveness of initial human process design and tools for operating the Mars 2020 spacecraft. The objective behind these simulations is to help engineers prototype their system design with real people, and to help software designers assess the performance of their tools.  



  • Design Producer: I'm currently the design producer and spearheading the effort to further cycle through other operations processes on the mission. 
  • Initiated training with participants of the large scale prototyping effort: 
    I coordinated with participants and train them on their role in the simulations
  • Created new form of visualizing operations agenda via storyboards:
    I produced storyboards illustrating the rover scenario scheduled
    to be simulated.
  • Made concept / future tools tangible: I create paper prototypes for notional tools not yet developed.
  • Distributed lessons learned: I helped disposition data and findings from the simulations to the engineers and software designers with suggestions for improvements and design objectives for their processes, and instruments. 




Before we even land on Mars, the mission spends several years designing these workflows through which engineers, scientists, and rover planners can effectively produce commands for the rover to execute on Mars. For Mars 2020, the mission is driven to create a more rapid operations process and production of commands.  


There's a lot that's changing on this new mission to Mars. Design Simulations help the Mars 2020 mission assess the current technologies in design today, and identify opportunities to reduce risk much earlier in mission development. 




STEP 01: Assemble a crew


I was in charge of creating paper prototypes, sketching, capturing feedback from participants and observers, and training people in the new operations process. 


STEP 02: Devise a plan


I created storyboards for the entire Design Simulation 01 experience. The storyboard helped the systems engineers critique how well the prototyping testing team understood how the operations workflow would manifest with real participants. The storyboard also helped the participants understand their role throughout the simulated tactical shift.


STEP 03: Acquire the technologies, in whatever state of development

To simulate the experience of working the first three hours of the Mars 2020 tactical timeline, the Prototyping team had to assemble the available tools for people to use when defining science objectives and articulating / moving the rover. Some software tools projected to be used during Mars 2020 operations are available now, and the Prototyping team simply brought in those tools into the simulation environment for participants to work with. However, many tools had to be mocked up in light weight paper prototypes. 


STEP 04: Find a rover, find Mars


We built an outcrop
The Mars Yard at JPL is a designated space for simulating rover behaviors on Mars. For the Design Simulations, we had to carry rocks and assemble an outcrop for our participants to assess during the simulated tactical operations shift. 


Once the outcrop was assembled, our prototyping team needed to calibrate the cameras that would be used to take images of the scenery during the simulation.


We couldn't use the whole Scarecrow rover during the simulation. However, we only needed the ability to position the wheels safely and capture imagery of the environment for this simulation. So instead, we only placed cameras and wheels within the rover workspace.


STEP 05: Provide a Flight School


Some operators were not familiar with the tactical Mars 2020 operations process, and some were completely new to the experience of operating a rover on a large team. To mitigate some of the confusion, I held small test sessions with various operators to help them familiarize themselves with the paper prototype tools, the objectives of their role, and how their role would interface with the team. 


STEP 06: Run operations

Hour 2 of Design Simulation 01. photo credit:  Matt Heverly

Hour 2 of Design Simulation 01. photo credit: Matt Heverly



This effort allowed the Mars 2020 team to witness for the first time what it might be like planning for a day on Mars with this new rover.
The Mars 2020 mission has considered this pilot simulation as a success and will invest in more frequent simulation efforts as this rover evolves.





Matt Heverly --> 
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