Saturday, December 15, 2007

Training the Next Generation of Space Explorers

Although continued space exploration certainly requires tax payers support - less than 1% of the federal budget is spent on space exploration, i.e. in 2007 this amounts to $1.09 per week per taxpayer - such a program would be impossible without the researchers and staff employed to run it. It takes dedication and consistency to recruit and train the people who make the space exploration program work. And it takes dedication to keep a steady interest among the students to forgo more lucrative technology opportunities and motivate them to take on challenges faced in a space program. While the NASA budget for such activities is often challenged and sometimes cut this rover project demonstrates a positive role businesses can play in keeping the expert pipeline flowing. Google is a company ran by visionaries who understand the importance of a space program. Not only by creating a space related challenge but also through supporting NASA's activities in encouraging students to take engineering and research careers and thus increasing their own opportunities for future hires from this group.

The NorCal rover project was conceived as part of NASA's Spaceward Bound program. Spaceward Bound is an educational program organized at NASA Ames in partnership with The Mars Society, and funded by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) at NASA Headquarters. The focus of Spaceward Bound is to train the next generation of space explorers by having students and teachers participate in the exploration of scientifically interesting but remote and extreme environments on Earth as analogs for human exploration of the Moon and Mars. One program involves teachers in authentic fieldwork so that they can bring that experience back to their classrooms and assist in the development of curriculum related to human exploration of remote and extreme environments. The second program is to enable students at the upper undergraduate and graduate level (including teachers) to participate as crew members in two-week long immersive full-scale simulations of living and working on the Moon and Mars at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), established and operated by The Mars Society.
The software and rover experiments this group is working on is targeted at both of these activities, one of the rovers will be entirely dedicated to classroom use as a vehicle to explore different engineering and software engineering topics and as a platform for science experiments and simulations.

Since I am writing about the people who care about the eduction of space explorers I should mention something I learned recently while visiting friends at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California about an hour and a half drive from Silicon Valley. A total of 33 graduates of the Naval Postgraduate School have become astronauts; more than any other graduate school in the country. So, if you are looking into an astronaut career, the NPS may not be a bad bet. I've been lead through their labs and facilities and the people there are doing serious space science and engineering. And they have among themselves two astronauts who work with them, both veterans of space flight, Daniel Bursch and Jim Newman. Sadly, two NPS graduates perished in the two Space Shuttle accidents; Michael J. Smith aboard the Challenger, STS-51L, on January 28, 1986 and William C. McCool on Columbia, STS-107, on February 1, 2003.

The Space Systems Academic Group at the Naval Postgraduate School established an annual award to an outstanding graduate of the Space Systems curriculum in honor of the two astronauts. The group is looking to raise additional funds for a modest endowment to make the award permanent. If you have an interest in making a tax deductible donation please follow this link.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Why a Rover? Aren't They Already on Mars?

Indeed, NASA has so far successfully operated three rovers on the surface of Mars. The first one, Sojourner was part of the Pathfinder mission. Sojourner, the rover, operated on the surface of Mars for 83 Sols (Martian days) and returned 2.6 billion bits of information, including more than 16,000 images from the lander and 550 images from the rover, as well as more than 15 chemical analysis of rocks and extensive data on winds and other weather factors. Even though science data ranged from geology and geomorphology through mineralogy, geochemistry, orbital dynamics, atmospheric science, astronomy and orbital dynamics - the mission was most importantly set to test novel approaches to the exploration of Mars. Most notably it used successfully a parachute and an array of airbags to accomplish a smooth landing. This approach coupled with a wealth of engineering data opened the path for the next rover mission to Mars.

Scientific highlights of the Mars Pathfinder mission:

* Martian dust includes magnetic, composite particles, with a mean size of one micron.
* Rock chemistry at the landing site may be different from Martian meteorites found on Earth, and could be of basaltic andesite composition.
* The soil chemistry of Ares Vallis appears to be similar to that of the Viking 1 and 2 landing sites.
* The observed atmospheric clarity is higher than was expected from Earth-based microwave measurements and Hubble Space Telescope observations.
* Dust is confirmed as the dominant absorber of solar radiation in Mars' atmosphere, which has important consequences for the transport of energy in the atmosphere and its circulation.
* Frequent "dust devils" were found with an unmistakable temperature, wind and pressure signature, and morning turbulence; at least one may have contained dust (on Sol 62), suggesting that these gusts are a mechanism for mixing dust into the atmosphere.
* Evidence of wind abrasion of rocks and dune-shaped deposits was found, indicating the presence of sand.
* Morning atmospheric obscurations are due to clouds, not ground fog; Viking could not distinguish between these two possibilities.
* The weather was similar to the weather encountered by Viking 1; there were rapid pressure and temperature variations, downslope winds at night and light winds in general. Temperatures were about 10 degrees warmer than those measured by Viking 1.
* Diversity of albedos, or variations in the brightness of the Martian surface, was similar to other observations, but there was no evidence for the types of crystalline hematite or pyroxene absorption features detected in other locations on Mars.
* The atmospheric experiment package recorded a temperature profile different than expected from microwave measurements and Hubble observations.
* Rock size distribution was consistent with a flood-related deposit.
* The moment of inertia of Mars was refined to a corresponding core radius of between 1,300 kilometers and 2,000 kilometers (807 miles and 1,242 miles).
* The possible identification of rounded pebbles and cobbles on the ground, and sockets and pebbles in some rocks, suggests conglomerates that formed in running water, during a warmer past in which liquid water was stable.

Following the path of the Pathfinder mission was the Mars Exploration Rovers mission which landed two rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) in January 2004 on opposing sides of the planet. Although designed to operate for 90 Sols, both rovers continue to operate today almost 4 years into the mission. These rovers were designed as robotic geologists, with the primary mission being the search for water or signs of past water on the surface of Mars. The big science question for the Mars Exploration Rovers is how past water activity on Mars has influenced the red planet's environment over time. While there is no liquid water on the surface of Mars today, the record of past water activity on Mars can be found in the rocks, minerals, and geologic landforms, particularly in those that can only form in the presence of water. That's why the rovers are specially equipped with tools to study a diverse collection of rocks and soils that may hold clues to past water activity on Mars.

A third roving mission to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory, is scheduled for launch in 2009 and arrive on Mars in 2010. This mission will conduct more complex science and it will have a range of operation of up to 20km from the landing site.

So why more rover science? While we have learned from these missions their ultimate purpose is to open the possibility of a future human mission to Mars, and surely one day to the inevitable colonization of the planet and further exploration through the Solar system and beyond. A human mission to Mars will no doubt rely on robotic vehicles to accomplish science and mission goals, and will in this interaction minimize some of the risks associated with crew's extravehicular activities (EVAs). Having humans and robotic vehicles interact on the surface of Mars changes many of the aspects of rover operation. Normally in purely robotic missions the planners need to factor in the communication delay which can range from 6.5 to 44 minutes for a round trip of commands and responses from the rover. When the crew is on Mars they will have the advantage of being able to operate the vehicles autonomously or in real time and so new scenarios for their use become possible. Moreover these type of human rover interactions will likely take place on return missions to the Moon as well. Therefore one of the primary roles for the NorCal rover operating at the MDRS alongside mission teams will be to explore science and mission operation scenarios where both are involved. The rover has enough computational power, navigational and communications capability and science instrumentation to model a good number of situations. In addition it's twin will be used by mission support teams as a sandbox model available for testing in advance of procedures and program changes suggested or requested by the MDRS crew thereby adding to the realism of the analog environment. Also, while this rover in itself will not test the particular hardware which may one day end on such a voyage it will nonetheless be able to test a good number of design and software architecture concepts which may eventually get incorporated into the actual mission.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Rover Selection Criteria

It took the group a while to turn the general plan of developing a tele-operated vehicle to support crews in a Mars analogue environment into a more detailed set of constraints. We agreed on a set of goals; augment the capabilities of the research crews, with a tool that is flexible and on which we can test different software architectures. The point being on providing standardized interfaces so teams with various backgrounds can develop various functional modules - i.e. a fancy word for adding different science capabilities to the same vehicle. The focus being on using the vehicle to train the future space explorers by having students and teachers devise and use the rover for scientific goals without worrying about the underpinning technical details. Not unlike a relation scientist have with supporting industries today. Rather then designing the rover from scratch we decided the interesting parts are on the interface between the the rover and the science - trading hardware development (which is interesting in itself but better done by people who already have experience in the field) for a platform rich enough to enable development of interesting software and algorithms. Nonetheless, selecting the right hardware in light of deployment in difficult terrain, but also keeping in mind that it needs tobe familiar to students and teachers we devised the following constraints to select the rover.

Top five criteria:

1. within budget
2. tele-operational, upgradeable to autonomous
3. reasonably all-terrain
4. video camera/wifi
5. flexible control unit

Additional specifications:

All terrain should include protection from fine dust and sand and somewhat rain-proof with insulated wires, robust. With one of them we are going into a serious environment, the rover needs to cope with it.

GPS with easy upgradeability. While the first cut is tele-operation, science objectives and future autonomous mode will greatly benefit from a gps unit.

Wifi unless not available, then radio control.

Video camera on a mast, start with one, write software for two, capable of mono or stereo.

Flexible control unit so rover programming is accessible to students and teachers.

Manipulator capability, arm with one degree of rotation

Laser ranger or other ranging hardware in order to keep the rover safe so we are able to give wide access to it yet avoid hazards in the field.

Build or purchase a storage house for the vehicle that can be located away from the hab and has easy open doors that will not need human intervention.

Power management that will allow vehicle to be fully charged for 2-4 hours, go out, come back, and charge itself, possibly shut down while driving to the goal

With this in the back of our minds we started the selection process. At the end, and after comparing side by side more than half a dozen manufacturers that were close to our budget we converged on Senseta's MAX series. The other two very close contenders were Pioneer P2AT and the Segway robotic platform. All of these were good contenders but after weighing primarily the cost and the other factors, we decided on Senseta. It is a good platform, and uses a regular small form factor PC capable of running widely available tools and hardware. If Apple ][ in its days was a great gift for schools, we think this rover could do the same for schools today, yet it is tested in the field and can perform a multitude of science goals at an attractive price. Being a standard PC it is easy to distribute development among teams not having direct access to it as it supports a decent simulation environment in software. Moreover, Senseta is closely affiliated with the robotics group at CMU which had some impressive record of innovation lately, and they were very enthusiastic to provide the initial support to get our group of the ground.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mars Analog Environments

The Mars Analogue Research Station (MARS) Programme is an international effort spearheaded by The Mars Society to establish a network of prototype research centres where scientists and engineers can live and work as if they were on Mars, to develop the protocols and procedures that will be required for human operations on Mars, and to test equipment that may be carried and used by human mission to the Red Planet. Currently, two of these units have been constructed, one in the Canadian High Arctic (FMARS) and a second one in the high desert plateau of Utah (MDRS). Two more are planned, one in Europe (Iceland) and the other in Australia.

The primary goal of the MARS programme is to research the operational environment of a base on Mars. As such, the programme is specifically geared towards answering a wide range of key questions about living and working on Mars, including:

  • What is the ideal number of crew and their composition for an exploratory team on Mars - four people, six people, more?
  • How well do support systems and equipment function “in the field”?
  • What are the best designs for EVA suits?
  • How easy is it to maintain equipment in isolated conditions?
  • How are group dynamics going to operate in such a closed environment?

In order to achieve these goals, operations at the Habitat Units are performed under "Mars simulation" conditions. This means that once a crew is in a unit, barring a serious medical event or emergency, they live and work as astronauts would on Mars:

  • They cannot leave the unit without donning a simulated space suit
  • They cannot communicate directly with anyone outside of the unit without a built-in time delay in the communication - the distance between Earth and Mars makes direct conversation impossible
  • They can only use the equipment, tools and food available to them inside the habitat.
In August of 2007 a four month mission was conducted at the Arctic Research Station (FMARS) on Devon Island in the high Canadian Arctic. It was the first time that a simulated Mars mission has ever been conducted for such a long duration. This landmark expedition performed research for eventual human missions to the Red Planet by conducting scientific exploration under nearly all of the constraints that astronauts on an actual Mars mission will one day face. In preparation for their unprecedented four-month Mars mission simulation, Commander Melissa Battler led a seven-member crew through two weeks of intense training at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah. The crew learned to work as a team with each other and with supporting groups, while familiarizing themselves with the procedures necessary for their full-scale mission this summer in the high Canadian Arctic.

Some of the science covered by the mission includes:
  • Temperature and flow relations in the active layer of the permafrost across -20 to 0 °C and applications to models of fluvial feature formation over permafrost on Earth and Mars.
  • Experiments with manipulation of the snow cover thickness and monitoring of the effect on the thaw of the underlying ground.
  • Measurement of melt generation in snowpacks and application to models for the melting of dusty snowpacks on Mars as the mechanism for creating gully features.
  • Measurement of in situ biological activity and changes in biological diversity and abundance as temperatures increase from -20 to 0 °C.
  • Measurement of the release of CH4 - an important greenhouse gas - from permafrost and possible applications to the source of CH4 on Mars.
  • Carbon release studies of permafrost as temperature changes, with applicability to global warming.
  • Deployment of interactive sensor networks to achieve science goals and human factors studies of the human - sensor network interface.
  • Isolation and confinement of this expedition enables research on human performance under extreme conditions analogous to space mission conditions.
  • Water utilization study, as water is one of the largest consumable masses on a long duration mission.

Our team is excited this project will provide additional simulation and science capability to the analog environments and also reach out to future explorers. Check the youtube link below for a slideshow from the 2007 FMARS expedition.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


So what is this all about? Following is the press release our Mars Society chapter put out a few months ago. We are currently waiting for funds to clear NASA's administration, we expect this to be completed in the coming weeks and start assembling the hardware for this project. The engineering, education and MDRS logistics teams are in place, initially staffed and have started discussions on implementation details. If you want to join the chapter and/or contribute to this project please visit the chapter web site you'll find the link below.

Northern California Mars Society/NASA Ames Robot Project Funded by Google

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA -- The Northern California Chapter of the Mars Society and NASA Ames Research Center have been awarded fifty-thousand dollars ($50K) by Google Incorporated for the "Spaceward Bound Robotic Vehicle Project for Research and Education". The project will purchase and configure two robotic rovers for use in telepresence testing as part of Spaceward Bound. Spaceward Bound is an educational program organized at NASA Ames Research Center in partnership with The Mars Society, and funded by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) at NASA Headquarters. The Mars Society is a non-profit international organization of volunteers who encourage, promote, and provide outreach and educational opportunities to inspire future explorers and further the goal of the exploration and settlement of Mars.

Graduate and undergraduate students are competitively selected to take part in two-week mission simulations at the Mars Desert Research Station site near Hanksville, Utah. The Mars Desert Research Station is a simulated Mars exploration base, which includes a habitat for human explorers, where research and training for future Mars exploration is conducted. The Mars Society established and operates the Mars Desert Research Station. The students learn a set of skills necessary to do field work in extreme environments on Earth and, by extension, on the Moon and Mars. Teleoperated robotic rovers will be an important part of any Moon or Mars research base. The project will train students to use this tool and have them develop this tool as part of a tool-kit used in field exploration. The rovers will be remotely operated from the habitat in teleoperation mode communicating through a wireless mesh network in the outside area.

In collaboration with the partners of the Spaceward Bound program, members of the Northern California Chapter of the Mars Society will provide the expertise to setup and maintain a robotics research capability located at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah for use by students, teachers, and scientists. In addition, the project will conduct outreach to students at schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, utilizing a robotic vehicle to promote science and engineering and inspire the next generation of explorers.

Additional information is available at these websites:

Spaceward Bound

Mars Society

Northern California Chapter of the Mars Society

Mars Desert Research Station Daily Logs


This is the official progress blog for the Mars Society Northern California chapter and NASA Ames Research Center Science Rover project. This project was initiated by NASA and the Mars Society and subsequently funded by Google Inc. The main goal of this project is to deliver two robotic vehicles, one for science research in Mars analog environments, namely the Mars Desert Research Station operated in the Utah desert by the Mars Society and another one for Bay Area outreach through NASA's Spaceward Bound program in an attempt to foster a new generation of space explorers, scientists and engineers.