NASA: Images foster public participation

The mission manager of Mars Exploration Rovers said the ability to allow public interaction is important to the success of the program.

"It's hard to imagine the Rovers program without this high-speed communication," said Mark Adler, mission manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California . "Everyone out there can go to our Web site and participate in the mission."

NASA is able to transmit images to the mission's Web site, http://www.marsrovers.

jpl.nasa.gov, almost immediately.

Public participation produced large amounts of traffic to the NASA Web portal.

Brian Dunbar, NASA's Internet services manager, confirmed that the portal received over one billion hits from Sat., Jan. 3, through Tues., Jan. 6.

By comparison, the Pathfinder mission produced 47 million hits in its first 24 hours, while the Columbia tragedy produced over 75 million hits on Feb. 1, 2003.

Despite the surge in traffic, the NASA Web portal sustained continuous service with only brief interruptions in the highest-resolution images.

Roopak Patel, a senior analyst at Keynote Systems Inc., which monitors federal Web sites, commented, "NASA should be commended for being able to support the volume that they did."

To enhance public participation, NASA also developed Maestro, a unique system that is available for public download over the Internet. Maestro allows users to run simulated missions through Java-based applications and conduct mock driving runs of the Mars rover.

In addition to the two onboard panoramic cameras that capture the online images, Spirit also operates four Hazard Avoidance cameras and one Science Microscopic Imager.

This is a technological advancement over previous NASA missions before the computer age, said Donna Shirley, a former manager of the rovers program who worked on the 1997 Pathfinder mission. She stated that NASA missions in the 1960s not only had flight systems controlled by radio waves but also had crude methods of developing images.

During the Mariner 4 mission, these methods included assigning a number system to image pixels and actually filling in charts with crayons to mark color changes.

Improvements have also facilitated better hazard-avoidance systems. Shirley recalls that the Pathfinder mission contained only a crude system that recognized hazards, which was effective at that time because the Sojourner Rover only moved at 1 centimeter per second.

Spirit and Opportunity's systems must be more advanced because the rover moves 10 times faster than Pathfinder, Shirley said. She expects NASA to keep advancing this technology to have the ability to recognize hazards on landings, and she even mentioned the future possibility of nuclear-powered rovers.

The missions for both Spirit and Opportunity have a warranty of 90 earth days, which translates into roughly 92 Martian days. At the end of each mission, the rovers will be left on Mars until the technology exists to bring them home.

Like Adler, Shirley also feels the excitement of the mission and looks forward to many more spectacular images from the red planet.

"These things are amazingly lucky, but they've worked hard and trained hard and it really paid off," Shirley said.

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