Intense discussion, various viewpoints, chairs being scooted around, slightly raised voices, and eventual consensus: just a typical meeting of scientists in the lab; in this case a rover lab at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The difference, though, was that this group was composed of students from four countries around the world who were planning simulated scientific tasks for exploring the surface of Mars. One of the targets they chose for analysis was a rock that they nicknamed "Pebbles." Only this rock isn't on the red planet; it is located in the JPL Mars Yard, an outdoor test facility that approximates Mars terrain located away from the rover lab. And after the mission, the students were able to visit "Mars" and actually see the rover used to conduct the exercise and "Mars rocks".
Student navigators selected by The Planetary Society as part of their Red Rover Goes to Mars program recently visited JPL to participate in a simulated mission operations exercise. They were able to experience the drama and excitement of a mission to Mars "up close and personal," as do scientists and other mission team members currently preparing for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission.
From a simulated mission control room, the students put the Field Integrated Design and Operations (FIDO) robotic rover through its paces in the JPL Mars Yard. Operations focused on short distance driving, trenching into soil using a FIDO wheel and taking images using a camera on the FIDO robotic arm. Students were able to participate in the process of characterizing exposed sediments using imaging and spectroscopy. Using training prepared by The Planetary Society, students had previously studied physics and geology and participated in on-line exercises to prepare them to interpret what they would see through the rover's sensors.
"It was interesting," said Dr. Eddie Tunstel, FIDO lead engineer and JPL point-of-contact for the visit. "The discussions were conducted just as rover mission scientists do here when planning tasks. Their enthusiasm is great - I noticed many members of the FIDO team dropping by just to observe the exercise."
On the first day of their three-day visit, students and their parents toured JPL. The second day was taken up with an intensive short course on using JPL's software used for remotely commanding FIDO. The third day was devoted to the simulated mission.
Science planning and execution was led by Dr. Bob Anderson, scientist for the rock abrasion tool on an upcoming rover mission, acting as flight manager, and Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, mission planner and FIDO control systems engineer. Rover operations engineer Dr. Mark Powell, mission uplink/downlink lead, kept very busy building command sequences for the rover in response to students' decisions about what they wanted to study and noted that they were easy to train in using the software.
The JPL team kept the mission planning discussion on course, reminding the student navigators of time and software/hardware constraints. They provided guidance for potential science targets, but let the students make the decisions on the scientific focus.
Trebi-Ollennu said, "We've had a fantastic three days with the kids. These tests provided an exciting venue for the kids to apply verbal, written, mathematical and computer skills to solve real-world problems. This international experience also gives the kids a unique insight and perspective as to how to work in a collaborative team of experts from diverse disciplines and cultures, an invaluable asset as aspiring space explorers."
While the student navigators were all scientific seriousness in the mission room, excitement and high spirits prevailed on their visit to the Mars Yard. They took pictures and got as close as possible to the rover, asking questions and chattering about their experience. Too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the rover and go back to the lab to conclude the mission.
Anderson led the group in a discussion of what they had done and what they had learned during the three days. The students agreed that they had learned to work as a team, to collaborate, to support consensus and they learned scientific procedures.
Students also commented that they had learned how helpless they could feel when they couldn't get an image they wanted and couldn't do anything about it, and when the answer they got was not what they thought it would be.
"Sometimes a negative answer is the answer," Anderson told them. "Part of learning is that technology doesn't always work."
Shaleen Harlalka, an Indian student, said "We're really lucky for this entire experience."
The students and their countries are: Paul Nicholas Bonato, 17, Australia; Avinash Chandrashekar, 12, India; Kimberly DeRose, 15, United States; Shaleen Harlalka, 17, India; Jacqueline Cherie Hayes, 17, Australia; Daniel Jan Hermanowicz, 11, Poland; Kevin Hou, 13, United States; and Bhushan Prakash Mahadik, 15, India.
They were accompanied by Glenn Cunningham, retired JPL Mars Global Surveyor project manager, Dr. Bruce Betts and Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society and teacher Charlie Lindgren (CK).
The Planetary Society, Pasadena, Calif., created the Red Rover Goes to Mars project to give exceptional students worldwide a unique opportunity to participate in performing real science using robotic rovers. Student navigators were selected from well over ten thousand international contest entrants, all of whom wrote journals chronicling their experiences teleoperating LEGO rovers. The general public was also invited to participate in the program through the Red Rover Goes to Mars International Art Competition, at http://planetary.org/rrgtm/artcontest.html, and the Send Your Name to Mars campaign, at http://spacekids.hq.nasa.gov/2003.
Red Rover Goes to Mars grew out of the successful Red Rover, Red Rover project. Red Rover, Red Rover allows classes of students to build their own Mars rovers from LEGO bricks and guide them through simulated Mars environments that they build. Students can also operate rovers built by other classes over an Internet connection.
For more information about the Red Rover Goes to Mars program, please see http://planetary.org/rrgtm/index.html. For more information about NASA's Mars program, please see http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov. The JPL home page is at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov.