August 8, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Seeing like the Mars Curiosity Rover

In my last blog I talked about metaphor as ‘the mind’s eyes’, as metaphors make us see something as something else, which enables us to think about something in novel ways, extend our knowledge and in the process shape both science and society. In this sense metaphor can be said to be a mental technology (metaphorically speaking) that lets us explore the world and use our imagination at the same time. The images beamed back from Mars by the Curiosity Rover made me think about rather more real or physical technologies of seeing which also change and shape our understanding of science and society, and, as one blogger put it, let our imagination soar.

A few days before Curiosity safely landed on Mars (a spectacular achievement in terms of science, technology and engineering), a geologist involved in the Mars mission wrote a blog entitled ‘Seeing Mars through the eyes of a geologist’. He tells readers about him and his team making trips to Death Valley, a terrain supposed to be quite similar to the one over which Curiosity now roams. He points out: “Once the rover — nicknamed Curiosity — touches down [which it has now!], the crew will see the landscape through the machine’s eyes only. These trips into the forbidding desert help them to develop a gut sense of the Martian terrain and to start thinking a bit like a Mars rover themselves.” In another article I read that the “rover’s equipment also includes the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – a robot version of a geologist’s magnifying glass”.

Anthropomorphising rovers and technomorphising humans

This reminded me of a 2008 study by Janet Vertesi. ‘Seeing like a rover’, devoted to an exploration of robot-human interaction linked to NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which arrived on Mars in 2003 (this study has just come out in Social Studies of Science). During the many years that the team members worked with the two Rovers they told stories about how they ‘learned to see like a Rover’. They developed an embodied relationship with their distant robots which both anthropomorphised the robots and technomorphised the team.

Interestingly, the language also morphed in response to this seeing something as a rover would do. And this is where metaphor crept in yet again. As Vertesi points out: “For example, the Panoramic Cameras are regularly referred to as the Rovers’ ‘eyes’, the hazard cameras aimed a the wheels show ‘what’s under our feet’, while the Instrument Deployment Device (IDD) is ‘the arm’, and its four instruments are described as ‘fingers’. The Rovers ‘talk’ to Earth via communication antennas, ‘sleep’ at night, ‘wake up’ and ‘take a nap’ at certain times, ‘stare’ or ‘look’ at targets on the surface regularly throughout the day”, and so on. Given that the Curiosity Rover is much more complex and has many more instruments, for observing and analysing, zapping and digging and many more activities, this language will evolve even further. This can all be called ‘anthropomorphising the rover’.

However, the parallel technomorphising of the research teams involved in the Spirit and Opportunity missions is also noteworthy. Amongst many other things, they had to learn to see like a rover, which meant adapting to the fact that, for example, the rovers could not see the world in colour but could see parts of the spectrum that humans can’t see. The researchers therefore had to use visualisation technologies that helped them see the surface of Mars in human terms. They also, of course, had to learn to ‘move like a rover’, ‘touch like a rover’ and so on, and interestingly, all the team members were being brought together in the body of the rover; so, many minds and bodies become one. Things will be similar for the teams operating Curiosity, although Curiosity can now see in colour and even in 3D, unlike its older predecessors, or, should we say, ancestors?

We and the world

What does this mean for us? We have always seen the world through something else, be it language, cave paintings, lenses of various sorts, and now through robots. We have in this way extended our vision and our reach and our understanding. We can now see the infinitesimally small, the extremely large and far away and the extremely complex (say, human networks and interactions), using an ever-expanding array of imaging and visualisation tools, from microscopes to data visualisation. You can therefore also gaze, if you want, at an infographic representing all Mars missions. But who is ‘we’ (is it just homo sapiens?) and what is ‘the world’? On the one hand, the world that we see seems to be expanding ever more rapidly. On the other hand, we and the world are also moving or morphing together ever more closely through and with the technology we use to explore it.

Our world and other worlds

Using science, technology and engineering, we can see all sorts of worlds, but imaging and visualisation tools also provide us with the opportunity to see ‘our world’ in very different ways, from very different perspectives. Look for example at these beautiful pictures of earth from space and appreciate their beauty (and the images tweeted by Chris Hadfield). The images that Curiosity is beaming down are beautiful too. They should remind us, however, of how fragile our earthly beauty can be.

Added April 2013 nice piece in io9 on Curiosity as female and fiction

Added May 2013 Nine months on Mars with @MarsCuriosity: a view from the front left hazcam timelaps of all photos  HT @TrueAnomalies

Added July 2013 Amazing image of Curiosity as a “pale blue dot”; thanks @Sci_Phile and @Eric Sawyer

Added July 2013: A rover’s eye view of driving, scooping and drilling during Curiosity’s first year on Mars

Added July 2013: Seeing Mars through Instagram!

Added August 2014: Article on how to drive the Mars Curiosity Rover

Added September 2015: A blog post by an ethnographer/sociologist embedded in the Mars mission – ha, it’s Janet Vertesi!

Added August 2016: And here is how Curiosity celebrated his fourth year on Mars! Quite emotional

Image: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sees Curiosity landing, wikimedia commons

Posted in images and visualisationsspace explorationvisualisation