- Humans have sent many robotic vehicles to study Mars, nearly 34 million miles away from Earth.
- Six-wheeled rovers have a twin set of cameras that act like eyes and a mast that looks like a neck.
- The robots take on “personalities” through their experiences and first-person social media accounts.
When a Mars rover beams back a selfie, the mission’s Earth-bound engineers and scientists feel like they’re getting a FaceTime from a friend they haven’t seen in ages.
We know Mars rovers are robots, but they feel like friends, or pets. What makes us feel so attached to them?
Those who work closely with these robotic emissaries — as well as the public — tend to anthropomorphize them, or endow these inanimate robots with human qualities, and experts told Insider this can help the overall mission.
“In all NASA missions, people feel some sense of connection to the vehicle, whether that’s a rover, an orbiter, or a lander,” Janet Vertesi, a sociologist of science and technology at Princeton University and ethnographer in several of NASA’s robotic space missions, told Insider.
“The robot is the thing that brings a whole community together — it’s like a symbol for the group.”
We’re hardwired to respond emotionally to cute robotic faces
Even scientists and engineers can’t help but attribute human characteristics to space robots.
“It’s the way the rovers are designed,” Abigail Freeman, the deputy project scientist of the Curiosity rover, told Insider. “Our brain is wired to make faces out of things that only vaguely resemble faces.”
Take the golf-cart-sized twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on the red planet in 2004.
Both rovers measure just over five feet tall and exceeded their expected lifetimes of 90 days exploring and gathering data on the Mars’ surface.
Like most modern rovers, the twins have a camera mast that looks like a neck.
“It really looks like a face, and that’s on purpose from a scientific perspective,” Freeman said. “We have two cameras that are spaced about the same space as the eyes.”
Rovers also have robotic arms designed to work as a human geologist would.
“We’re living vicariously through through these robotic explorers,” Emily Stough, an engineer for NASA’s Insight lander, told Insider. “It’s kind of like friends go on a great adventure and they take all these great pictures and you get to follow along from home.”
Their ability to snap selfies on the Martian surface make them seem self-aware
Rovers are able to use the camera attached to their robotic arm to take epic selfies from the Martian surface.
“There’s a certain self-awareness behind taking a selfie, and I think we can translate this to the rover,” Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist of the Mars 2020 rover, told Insider.
“Of course, we’re the ones telling it to do that.”
“What always struck me about the selfies is that like, how just a subtle tilt of the mast can kind of convey a different human emotion compared to a head-on, straight-on view,” she added.
Robot ‘personalities’ emerge by tackling challenges on Mars
As a mission with a six-wheeled rover ages, the robot’s “personality” emerges.
Spirit and Opportunity were two rovers that were totally identical in their design. But based on the different places where the rovers landed on Mars, they ended up having two very different experiences.
“Spirit got this personality where it was sort of a blue-collar worker, really down in the dirt grinding away. It needed to do a lot harder work,” Freeman said.
Opportunity, meanwhile, was known as “Little Miss Perfect” after it landed on top of geological evidence of liquid water.
Then there’s Curiosity, a car-sized rover that landed on Mars in 2012. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory lovingly started calling it George, according to Stack Morgan, who also served as a geologist for the Curiosity rover mission.
The resilient robot has had to overcome several issues throughout its mission.
“You get this feeling that the rover is tackling challenges, and those become very human actions,” Stack Morgan said. “Through the ups and downs of operating a spacecraft is when you really start to build that emotional connection — you really start to see them as a friend and partner who’s struggling along with you. We’re doing the Earth side of it and the rovers are doing the Mars side of it.”
Not all mission team members embrace this level of attributing human characteristics to a literal robot.
“For some people, the anthropomorphizing is going too far, because it would take away from the pressure to really care for the robot,” Vertosi, the sociologist, said.
The public can engage with first-person accounts on social media
“Scientists do have a way of interacting with the rovers that really brings them to life. But it’s not quite the same as the public,” Vertesi said. “NASA has really encouraged that because, you know, public engagement is incredibly important for publicly funded science. I think that’s why we see so much of this encouragement of anthropomorphism among the public.”
This started with LiveJournal entries for Spirit and Opportunity, ascribing them each their own personalities. Now, most NASA missions now have their own social media accounts written in the first-person.
Rovers, landers, and orbiters can even send heartbreaking farewell messages, thanks to their dedicated social media team.
—NASA InSight (@NASAInSight) December 19, 2022
It’s hard to say goodbye to a friend
For the teams of hundreds engineers and scientists who work on Mars spacecraft, the end of a mission means the loss of a core team member.
“It’s also the loss of a team that you have worked very hard and very intensively with for decades,” Vertesi said, adding that she’s been involved in several “robot funerals.”
“It’s like a wake,” Vertesi said. “It’s a celebration of life and the last hurrah for the team, as much as it is a way of grieving for and processing the loss of the robot for which they have intensively cared and dedicated so much of their lives to.”