NASA scientists have to wear red-blue 3D glasses to pilot the Mars Curiosity rover because their advanced goggles don’t work at home

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A selfie taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover during a Martian dust storm. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill (CC BY 2.0)
  • NASA scientists driving the Curiosity rover on Mars are working from home and have come up with an ingeniously low-tech solution for replacing the advanced 3D goggles they usually use.
  • The team is using red-blue 3D glasses, like the ones used for watching 3D movies.
  • They appear to be effective, as the scientists were able to execute a rock-drilling operation while working from home.
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NASA scientists working from home are continuing to pilot the Mars Curiosity rover with a little help from a piece of technology that would be at home in a 1980s movie theatre.

NASA sent nearly all 17,000 of its employees home in mid-March after multiple workers at its facilities tested positive for the coronavirus. And like the millions of other people now working from home, NASA’s teams have had to adapt.

In a blog post on Tuesday, NASA detailed how the team members driving Curiosity prepared their work-from-home setups, shipping equipment like headsets and monitors from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Not all the equipment could be sent home, however.

Curiosity’s pilots normally rely on special 3D goggles to look at the landscape around the rover and help it navigate and reach out its robotic arm. These goggles automatically flip between left- and right-eye views to create a 3D image.

NASA Mars curiosity team
NASA’s Mars Curiosity pilots working from home. NASA/JPL-Caltech

But to run these goggles you need an extremely powerful graphics card, like the ones found on the modified gaming computers inside NASA’s lab. Those could not be shipped out.

“In order for rover operators to view 3D images on ordinary laptops, they have switched to simple red-blue 3D glasses,” NASA’s blog post said. “Although not as immersive or comfortable as the goggles, they work just as well for planning drives and arm movements.”

The Curiosity team has been working remotely since March 20, and on March 22 it successfully commanded Curiosity to drill a rock sample.

“It’s classic, textbook NASA,” Carrie Bridge, the science operations team chief, said in the blog post. “We’re presented with a problem and we figure out how to make things work. Mars isn’t standing still for us; we’re still exploring.”