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1/7/2004
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NASA's IT Success

NASA's Mars mission reinvigorates one CIO's business-technology adventure. Also: Mars pics, NASA's architecture problems, and vendor connections.

When Leo Hurtado woke Tuesday morning, he felt awful. His head was clogged and his voice was raspy, but the excitement over NASA's successful landing Sunday of a robotic exploration rover left Hurtado with a feeling that anything was possible. The VP and CIO of furniture retailer W.S. Badcock Corp. resolved to take a shower and drive to his Mulberry, Fla., office for another day of wrangling with the company's IT makeover.

The early success of the rover Spirit has left many business-technology professionals marveling at the cosmic implications of 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 the Spirit's mission look easy. But the richly textured, red, digital images that appeared on the space agency's site Tuesday belie the truly monumental task of sending large quantities of data tens of millions of miles through the solar system.

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

Mars landscape

This is the first color image sent back from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. NASA claims it's the highest-resolution color image of another planet.

NASA/JPL
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 megabits of data. That's three times what Spirit's predecessor, Mars Pathfinder, could transmit daily when it arrived in 1997.

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

Back on Earth, NASA scientists are receiving as much as 150 megabits of data daily from the rover and orbiters, she says. This number will only 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. Altogether, the storage servers can hold four terabytes of data.

Much of the technology that runs the orbiters and rovers has been available for years. This includes Wind Rivers Systems' 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 its 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 space success, the Stardust comet probe). The latest version of VxWorks, for example, has support for 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.

Both Deliman and Trosper say technology 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. "This could lead to a car that drives itself," Deliman says.

3D Mars landscape
Grab a pair of 3-D glasses from your kids' room and take a look at this stereo image taken by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit navigation camera. Credit: NASA/JPL

Indeed, if NASA can unravel even one mystery of a planet we've mythologized for millennia, surely Badcock CIO Hurtado can bend technology to the task of consolidating the operations of a 100-year-old furniture company.

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