I spent a fair amount of time this afternoon checking in on the Mars Curiosity webcam as the engineering team puts the rover through its paces. Curiosity is the latest Mars robotic mission, due to launch this fall; it’s a much larger and more complex vehicle than Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers currently on Mars. As a theoretical physicist, I am always impressed by the ingenuity of the designers and builders of these robotic explorers: I have some idea about the difficulty in constructing these things, enough to know how challenging they must be to get right. Think about it: you have to construct this robot to survive a long journey across space and a landing on the surface of an entirely different planet — and it all has to be done with a minimum of human intervention, because there is a significant lag in communication time between Earth and Mars. In other words, Curiosity has to be somewhat autonomous: if it runs into trouble, it has to be sophisticated enough to sort the problems out itself.
The mechanical aspects are pretty complex too: without roads or even smooth terrain, rovers need to be able to move around freely, turn in a tight circle, and (as best as possible) not get stuck. To this end, Curiosity has 6 independently-steerable wheels on legs to allow it to go over and around obstacles; the tests today demonstrated a lot of this. (I found myself thinking how fun it would be to have a LEGO kit or some other kind of toy version — the mechanical construction would be a fun challenge for my copious spare time.) Many people on the webcam site complained about how slowly Curiosity moves, but of course that’s a necessary compromise: moving quickly requires a bigger motor and hence more energy to carry it around, but also moving quickly has more danger associated with it. If Curiosity meets an obstacle at a slow speed, the wheels are more likely to be able to go over it without incident; if it’s going too fast, the frame can be jarred or even damaged.
While I watched the engineers testing Curiosity, I also observed others on the site as they commented. A theme emerged in many posts: people referred to Curiosity as “our” rover, and expressed a kind of proprietorial pride. Of course they’re right in a sense: it’s a NASA project, so our tax money supports the construction and scientific mission. But by watching the robot come together and move around, people felt even more of an ownership than that: it’s a participation in the process, even though it’s passive. The community is virtual — nobody talking was in the room with the robot — yet there was a connection to what was going on.
When we think about science education and public science communication, participation is obviously an important part. As writers, journalists, and other educators debate over the meaning of outreach in its variety of forms, we should remember that what the public wants is connection and ownership. By helping people feel connected to the science, and feeding their curiosity, we provide the best service to them and to the science itself.