Intel iQ: Programming Rovers On Mars From 100 Million Miles Away
How did a team of NASA scientists actually get a one ton robot onto the red planet?
Putting a one ton robot on Mars is very hard. So hard, in fact, that NASA created a Hollywood-type trailer detailing the challenges of landing the ‘Curiosity’ rover on Mars, to let us know that it’s not all Tang and budget cuts over there. By using the ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’ video, NASA drummed up suspense around the rover, successfully getting people excited about space again (the Mohawk helped a bit, too).
And it wasn’t just hype—the suspense is justified!
On 30 July 2012 the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) flight team began executing a plan of action, designed and programmed over nine months ago using software called VxWorks, which was created by the Intel subsidiary Wind River. VxWorks managed all of the white-knuckle inducing feats involved in the spacecraft’s entry, descent, and landing. Mile Deliman, senior member of the technical staff at Wind River, explained:
Wind River’s VxWorks is the software platform that controls the execution of all of Curiosity’s functions—from managing avionics to collecting science data and sending the experimental results back to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Earth using satellite telemetry.
When Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars on 6 August 2012 it became the eighth rover to travel to our rust-colored neighbor, and the fourth to successfully touchdown. Of those four, only one is still active: the Mars Exploration Rover (MER), Opportunity, which has been exploring the Red Planet for over 3100 days.
Since 2009 one of the MER operators, Scott Maxwell, has kept a blog detailing his days at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In his last post on 4 April 2012, he shared his thoughts on the experience as a whole:
[T]o contemplate how my life has changed in those years. Deaths, divorce, new beginnings — the rovers have been there to anchor me through ups and downs. No matter how bad things got, I’d go to work, reach across a hundred million miles of emptiness, and move something on the surface of another world. It was always magic.
The Curiosity rover is a huge upgrade from the earlier Mars Exploration Rover, with nearly ten times the mass of scientific instruments. In line with the four goals of the Mars Exploration program, Curiosity will attempt to:
- Determine whether Life ever arose on Mars.
- Characterize the Climate of Mars.
- Characterize the Geology of Mars.
- Prepare for Human Exploration.
As you can imagine, controlling a robot on another planet takes more than just a joystick and a pair of radio antennas. The MER teams are made up of hundreds of people working together to carry out the missions, and if Curiosity makes its landing they will jump into action. The difficulties they face are literally astronomical.
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