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Mars Space Robotics NASA IT Technology

Meet the Drivers Behind NASA's Mars Rovers 67

Posted by Zonk
from the best-game-ever dept.
StonyandCher writes "Scott Maxwell must have one of the best IT jobs in the solar system, driving NASA's Mars Rovers. Behind every robot is a driver. He's one of 14 Rover Drivers that work in NASA's California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Maxwell discusses what makes up an average work day, the highlights of the project, how he got the job, and the tools he uses in his work. A great look at the team of dedicated IT workers behind the robots, plotting the every move of NASA's twin robot geologists, Spirit and Opportunity, since they first landed on Mars at the start of 2004."
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Meet the Drivers Behind NASA's Mars Rovers

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  • by coolmoose25 (1057210) on Friday November 16, 2007 @04:31PM (#21383335)
    Are there any female drivers and if there are, do they do their makeup in the rear view mirror while driving? (ducking and running for cover)
    • by mindlar (707940)
      Yes, some of the rover drivers are female. Unfortunately there are no rear view mirrors on the rover. And yes, they are good looking.
    • by Tablizer (95088)
      Are there any female drivers and if there are, do they do their makeup in the rear view mirror while driving?

      And us guys crash watching them put on lip-gloss.
           
    • Re:Women Drivers? (Score:4, Informative)

      by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Saturday November 17, 2007 @01:35AM (#21387565) Homepage

      Are there any female drivers


      Three: Ashley Stroupe [nasa.gov], Tara Estlin [nasa.gov], and Julie Townsend [nasa.gov].

      Incidentally, they're all terrific speakers as well; if you get a chance to go to one of their talks, don't miss it.

      Also, an unofficial trainee for the MER rover-driver role is Sharon Laubach [nasa.gov], who also worked on the first-ever Mars rover, Sojourner [nasa.gov] (the Mars Pathfinder rover). Sharon's doing this unofficially because officially she's our boss, but she's awesome at it and loves doing it, so we give her a turn now and then. :-)

      and if there are, do they do their makeup in the rear view mirror while driving? (ducking and running for cover)


      Ahem. Ask them in person sometime, and see what happens.

      Luckily for you, they all have good senses of humor, so you're reasonably likely to escape with your life. Bear in mind that Julie does karate, though. ;-)
      • by RockDoctor (15477)

        and if there are, do they do their makeup in the rear view mirror while driving? (ducking and running for cover)

        Ahem. Ask them in person sometime, and see what happens.

        Luckily for you, they all have good senses of humor, so you're reasonably likely to escape with your life. Bear in mind that Julie does karate, though. ;-)
        --
        ``Life results from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators.'' -- Richard Dawkins

        Sounds to me like someone is cruising for a (neo-)Darwin award.

  • Oh (Score:4, Funny)

    by niceone (992278) * on Friday November 16, 2007 @04:33PM (#21383377) Journal
    That sort of driver.
  • by brentonboy (1067468) on Friday November 16, 2007 @04:33PM (#21383379) Homepage Journal
    Martian robots drive YOU!
  • by Frequency Domain (601421) on Friday November 16, 2007 @04:34PM (#21383391)
    Normal safe driving recommends the "2 second rule". These guys have to allow, what, 20 minutes?
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      No headlights, no indicators, a stuck wheel and no spare, millions of miles to the next garage and coworkers who want to stop all the time to take thousands of pictures: tailgating is the least of their problems.
    • 2 full seconds? At highway speeds that's like 20 car-lengths.

      75 mph * 2 seconds = 110 f/s * 2s = 220 feet

      Methinks you might have trouble staying almost a full football field behind anyone. The rule I heard was 1 car length for each 10 mph you are traveling, but even that seems like a bit much at higher speeds, especially in congested areas.

      Back on topic, I sure wish my car had the same amount of automation as the Mars Rovers. I could just type in "work" to the GPS, the autopilot takes over, and I nap on the
      • Back on topic, I sure wish my car had the same amount of automation as the Mars Rovers. I could just type in "work" to the GPS, the autopilot takes over, and I nap on the way there.

        Did you read the article? If you had you would have known there's no automation at all; you must have been thinking of the TV show a year or two ago that showed a car that was supposed to be as intelligent as the Mars Rovers escape and started doing it's own thing.

        After only one meeting with the Rover drivers, I still couldn'

    • by rossdee (243626)
      Fortunately traffic on Mars is fairly light, the two rovers have the whole planet to themselves.
  • what are the gas prices on mars?

    which gps unit works best on mars?

    how does he change the windshield fluid?

    ok, i'll shut up now...
  • by flaming error (1041742) on Friday November 16, 2007 @04:36PM (#21383415) Journal
    > We make sure that the commands we're sending to the Rover
      > will do the right thing in the face of all imaginable
      > contingencies. We review this final cut at the day's
      > commands -- twice!

    They're obviously getting this done damn well, to keep these machines going so long after their expiration date. These JPL folks do NASA and humanity a great credit.

    Kudos.

    • They're obviously getting this done damn well, to keep these machines going so long after their expiration date. These JPL folks do NASA and humanity a great credit.


      On behalf of my team: thanks! And they really are the smartest, most dedicated, all-around finest group of folks I have ever had the pleasure to work with. The whole project is like that; it's the experience of a lifetime, and I'm loving every minute of it.

  • Does he get an insurance break here on earth?

    "Dude, I've been driving a martian rover for over 10 times its orginal design.. NO ACCIDENTS. Come onnnn!"

    P.S. Sorry for turning him into a drunken 20 year old in that quote.

  • Bent brush (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Cally (10873) on Friday November 16, 2007 @04:43PM (#21383505) Homepage
    So... who bent the brush [newscientist.com]? ;)
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Tablizer (95088)
      Who bent the brush?

      I find a bigger puzzle in the article: "In late 2006, Opportunity's rock grinder, or rock abrasion tool (RAT), stalled during a grind because an encoder had stopped working. Engineers fixed the problem by writing software to operate the tool without data from the encoder. "So we [have been] able to grind successfully with the device since then," Callas says...Spirit's grinder encoder also stopped working recently, forcing the rover team to implement a similar software fix."

      Spirit's rock
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Cally (10873)
        You're correct. The rocks where Opportunity is are mostly soft sedimentary sandstones. Spirit's got lots of volcanic basalt. Hence one RAT is (was) still grinding whilst the other, isn't.
  • Eureka! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Tablizer (95088)
    Oh, and the first hints of that [water-linked] silica-rich material were turned up by the trenches we dug as we dragged our broken wheel around. Without that hardware failure, Spirit wouldn't have realised one of its greatest successes!

    Are they gonna patent their Trench-A-Matic?
           
  • by Black-Man (198831) on Friday November 16, 2007 @04:49PM (#21383569)
    Java, Python, Perl and Shell scripts are used to program this thing? I just can't understand a development team shunning XP Pro and .NET. The shelf life was suppose to be 1 year - isn't that about right for a .Net application before permanent and complete failure??

  • by hullabalucination (886901) on Friday November 16, 2007 @05:24PM (#21383957) Journal

    Dear Motorist:

    You have received this traffic citation, on this sol of 13 Smoogna, 1126, issued by the city of Oxia Palus in the county of Planitia, Mars, for the following indicated violations.

    __ Following too closely to a boulder.

    __ Failure to light headlamps within 5 sols of sundown.

    __ Parallel parking on inside slope of crater.

    __ Driving in planet-wide reduced visibility conditions without running lights.

    __ Failure to signal turn to JPL.

    You will find information on the back of this form concerning fees and places to pay your fine. Thank you, and remember: "Unsafe driving will make your fellow Martian motorists see red."

  • by PainBreak (794152) on Friday November 16, 2007 @05:25PM (#21383975)
    Forward 4000 Wait 2400 Left 80 Wait 2400 Shit...where's my turtle? Guys?...
  • by Cajun Hell (725246) on Friday November 16, 2007 @05:43PM (#21384149) Homepage Journal

    Maybe your drivers are ok, but until specs are released, I'm not buying any NASA Mars rovers. The Taiwanese rovers are good enough, and Theo's team have come up with drivers for them, that we can trust.

  • God I loved that game. Set the gravity to like Io and omfg !!!!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racing_Destruction_Set [wikipedia.org]
  • Will these drivers work with Vista or do we have to wait for more M$ patches?
  • So what is their reaction whenever they see 'Performed by professional driver in a closed course' in any car ad?
  • Why 14? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by f97tosc (578893) on Friday November 16, 2007 @06:16PM (#21384507)
    Why do you need 14 drivers for 2 rovers?
    • Re:Why 14? (Score:5, Informative)

      by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Saturday November 17, 2007 @01:06AM (#21387463) Homepage

      Why do you need 14 drivers for 2 rovers?
      We have at least two rover drivers per rover per day, so in theory, we could get by with as few as four -- as long as nobody takes vacation or gets sick. However, almost all of the rover drivers are part-timers on MER; for career and funding reasons, most people want to have multiple irons in the fire, so we tend to work on more than one project. (And that includes me, though I sometimes wish it didn't. In addition to being the rover driver team lead on MER, I work on ATHLETE [nasa.gov] and Mars Science Laboratory [nasa.gov], and I worked on Phoenix [nasa.gov] until recently. ATHLETE and MSL are awfully cool rovers, but even so, I miss the days when I worked full-time on MER.)

      Also, about a third of the people included in that count don't actually work on MER any more, though they're sometimes called in to consult on tricky days or for anomaly investigations.

  • by StickyWidget (741415) on Friday November 16, 2007 @07:31PM (#21385241)

    This guy is not IT, don't insult him like that. This was an systems engineering job, taking many different disciplines like mechanical design, controls, computer programming, networking, electrical engineering, and computations/algorithms and rolling it into one. Now, he seems like more of an operations engineer, as he is running what is essentially operations, support, and maintenance for the rover. NOT IT.

    Don't kid yourselves, IT is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to tech jobs. The vast majority of IT workers debug problems with Windows security profiles, or check that a port is open on a firewall, or make sure that some top level manager can view his porn through the corporate Web filters. Higher level IT jobs involve putting in a network switch, or maybe making a web site to streamline a business process. Half the network engineers I meet don't know what negative voltage is, and most of the programmers look at assembler and see gibberish. Trained monkeys could do the job if they didn't throw $hit everywhere.

    This guy is not a code monkey, he is not a TCP/IP whore, he's an engineer and a scientist. He works on systems that would make an IT guy say, "I only know how to configure Cisco, I don't know how to do that". Or maybe "You can make code turn wheels at a certain speed? WOW!".

    Best learn it now, IT (non-management of course) in 5 years is going to be one step above assembly line worker, designated paper pusher, and secretary.

    ~Sticky
    /Go ahead, mod it down. It doesn't make it any less true.

  • You're right (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Friday November 16, 2007 @07:33PM (#21385261) Homepage
    I *do* have a great job ... and I also read Slashdot. :-)
  • I was at a party recently and met John Callas, the MER Program Manager.

    I shouldn't have tried to outdo him by bragging to the hostess that I was the only real "rocket scientist" present. (I build target missiles that get shot down by the MDA.)

    A short while later, John used his cellphone to impress a young lady who wandered over to chat him up. He opened up his Razr and showed her how he gets 12-hour updates from each of the rovers via SMS, complete with maps.

    The dude gets texted from Mars four times a day.

    I had to concede.

    • by ianalis (833346)
      I wonder what the lady's reaction is. I'm working on telemicroscopy and I can control a microscope through phone (SMS, MMS, 2.5G/3G) and other interfaces. Would doing that mean my cold nights are over? :)
    • Now, what makes me think that you each went home alone after that party?

      Those Mars rover drivers like to play tricks on each other, trying to sneak in some instructions in the other guys' files, to make the rover crash into rocks or dive over an outcrop. It's gotten so bad that they hold peer reviews and trial runs before the data is sent to the robots.

      Ah, but it's a tough job, too. On one hand you are happy to have work, on the other, you hate those little rovers and wish they'd give up and die already. Wh
  • I am sorry but these women are every geek's wetdream. They're intelligent, goodlooking and have fabulous jobs. The envy quotient for many of us is immeasurable. Their partners/husbands et. al better be good to these women or we'll take them "around the corner" to beat some sense into them. :)

    All in all it is absolutely great these women are so successful in these areas of science that has for a long time been seen as an old boys club. Kudos to them and let's hope they'll have more prospero

All this wheeling and dealing around, why, it isn't for money, it's for fun. Money's just the way we keep score. -- Henry Tyroon

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