Mars mission to test use of Internet

When the space probe Pathfinder lands on Mars July 4 unfolds its three solar panels and deploys a tiny rover that scientists will control remotely to collect information Earth-bound Internet users also will have the opportunity to guide a simulated Martian rover.

The project part of a NASA outreach program will allow thousands of on-line computer users to guide a simulated 3-D rover over the Red Planet using real images of the Martian landscape that a stationary camera on the Pathfinder lander will have beamed back to Earth.

"The public will be able to command and simulate their own 3-D rover mission " said Paul Backes technical group leader in the automation and control section of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena Calif.NASA plans to use the program to provide insight into how scientists may use the Internet to guide rovers for future Martian missions.

For the Pathfinder mission expected to last no more than a month a select group of scientists studying Mars will convene at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and collaborate on controlling the rover whose primary purpose is to gather geological information using an X-ray device. But future Mars missions are expected to last perhaps as long as a year.

"For a long-duration mission it's not feasible for the scientists to all come to JPL " Backes said.

NASA plans to use a Java applet that Backes and Kam Tso research scientist at IA Tech Inc. Los Angeles have developed that will allow scientists to control rovers via the Internet. The applet called Web Interface for Telescience will be similar to the application Web surfers will use to command the simulated rovers on JPL's Web site (

In future missions mission scientists will use the applet to do their work in cyberspace rather than traveling to the JPL.

The applet will take Web surfers about 10 minutes to load. It will allow anyone with access to the Internet to choose a perspective from a 360-degree photographic panorama taken by Pathfinder and guide a simulated rover over the Martian surface "just as the scientists designate where they want the real rover to go " Backes said.

What a user will see however is the real video that the Pathfinder lander has beamed back to Earth.

The real Pathfinder rover is small -only a little larger than a breadbox and weighing about 22 pounds. At the core of its onboard control system is an Intel Corp. 80C85 processor which according to NASA officials was selected in part for its low cost. The processor is an 8-bit model that runs about 100 000 instructions per second. The rover computer has 576K of RAM and handles data input and output for such rover components as cameras a modem and motors. The Pathfinder lander meanwhile is controlled by a commercially available computer IBM Corp.'s RAD6000.

Communication between scientists and the rover will be accomplished wirelessly via the Pathfinder lander which will beam the information it collects back to Earth and which will receive commands for the rover from a Silicon Graphics Inc. workstation on the ground.

Besides being able to play with their own simulated rovers the public also will view via the Web which scientists actually are guiding the rover and to see some mission data such as instrument readings.

"Probably the most intriguing [IT application involving Pathfinder] is a Web-based interface which is available to the general public that will allow really anyone to see the images and the path planning and the activity of the insertion of the rover during the pathfinder mission " said Richard Doyle section manager for information and computing research technologies at JPL.


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