Mars Rover's Earthly Impact - InformationWeek

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1/9/2004
02:54 PM
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Mars Rover's Earthly Impact

NASA's latest mission inspires seen-it-all business technologists and could offer tools with down-to-earth uses

When Leo Hurtado woke up Tuesday morning, he felt awful. His head was clogged and his voice was raspy. But the excitement over NASA's successful landing of a robotic exploration rover on Mars left Hurtado with a feeling that anything is possible. That energy helped the VP and CIO of furniture retailer W.S. Badcock Corp. get himself into the shower and out the door for another day of wrangling with the company's IT makeover.

It's easy to become jaded by all the promises of technology, but the early success of the rover Spirit has renewed a sense of wonder for some business-technology professionals as they marvel at NASA's latest foray to the red planet. "I look at NASA and see that they just put a device on Mars, and it's working," Hurtado says, sounding energized despite his cold. "There isn't anything we can't do with computers."

It's NASA's job to make Spirit's mission look easy. But the richly textured digital images that appeared on the space agency's site Tuesday belie the monumental task of sending large quantities of data tens of millions of miles through the solar system.


Spirit Mars Rover -- Photo by NASA

Spirit sends NASA up to 150 Mbits of data a day via orbiters.

Photo of Spirit Mars Rover by NASA
NASA is getting a lot of data, not only from Spirit but also from the Mars orbiters Odyssey and Global Surveyor, which have been skirting the Martian atmosphere for years. NASA's Deep Space Network antennas, located in Goldstone, Calif., in the Mojave Desert and near Madrid, Spain, and Canberra, Australia, receive data directly from Spirit at 12,000 bps to 3,500 bps, about one-third as fast as a standard home modem.

Although Spirit is capable of hitting the Deep Space Network antennas, NASA has the rover relay much of its data through the orbiters. "To transmit to Earth takes a lot of power, so to conserve, we send some of the data to the spacecraft and relay that to Earth," says Spirit mission manager Jennifer Trosper, who works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Spirit and the orbiters can communicate for about eight minutes at a time, during which they can transfer about 60 Mbits of data. That's three times what Spirit's predecessor, Mars Pathfinder, could transmit daily when it arrived in 1997.

None of the crafts will return to Earth, of course, so they aren't designed to store data for long periods of time. Spirit holds up to 200 Mbytes of flash memory, Trosper says.

Back on Earth, NASA scientists receive as much as 150 Mbits of data daily from the rover and orbiters. This number will sharply increase when Spirit's sister rover, Opportunity, lands later this month. To deal with this steady stream of data, NASA and Sun Microsystems built four operational storage servers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Together, the four storage servers can hold 4 terabytes of data.

Much of the technology that runs the orbiters and rovers has been available for years. This includes Wind River Systems Inc.'s VxWorks real-time operating system, which was aboard the Mars Pathfinder mission. "We get pulses and blips from the rover and orbiters every eighth of a second," Trosper says. This continuous updating of system information is essential to the rovers' navigation systems, in particular, letting scientists know where the rovers are on Mars' surface.

VxWorks is at the center of Spirit, helping the rover's mechanical and software components work in unison. The real-time operating system has evolved since it was first completed for the Pathfinder's RAD6000 computer in 1995, says Mike Deliman, a member of Wind River's technical staff and chief engineer of operating systems for the Odyssey and both rovers (and, for that matter, NASA's other recent space success, the Stardust probe of a comet). The latest version of VxWorks, for example, supports file systems that can be archived and downloaded when Spirit communicates with the Earth or the orbiters. "The operating system has gotten more efficient and now has more finely tuned logic," Deliman says.

Even people who work closely with the technology, like Deliman and Trosper, can be awed by its potential broader applications at times. They both predict that functions that Jet Propulsion Laboratory introduced for this latest Mars mission will have an impact on business technology in the future. The lab's AutoNav system in particular lets Spirit find its way along the Martian surface without assistance. Says Deliman, "This could lead to a car that drives itself."

Photo of Mars landsacpe by NASA

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