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Channel 9 on Mars: Inside the Mars Exploration Mission - Past, Present and Future

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While in LA for PDC2008, we were lucky enough to get the chance to head down to Pasadena for a tour and interview at the Jet Propulsion LaboratoryNic Fillingham and I grabbed a cab and met up with the great Marc Mercuri (of RoboChamps fame), DPE's VP Walid Abu-Hadba and others to get a look at the JPL Mars Rover facility and meet some of the folks behind the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. Our guide was the venerable Dave Lavery who is the Program Executive for Solar System Exploration at NASA.

This is a fascinating glimpse into the world of solar system exploration from the perspective of robotics and software design (Dave was a major contributor to the robotics design and development efforts behind (and in) the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity).

Tune in and learn about some of the challenges of developing autonomous machines that you will never get to touch again (think about the reduncancy requirements for a robot rover that is deployed 100 million miles away from Earth...). It's really exciting that the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity will be joined on the red planet by a new mobile robot equipped with an advanced laboratory capable of unparalleled experimentation and analysis. The folks at JPL think 100 million miles outside of the box!

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  • William Staceystaceyw Before C# there was darkness...

    Cool vid.  I wonder, will the new rover have a way to remove a wheel (i.e. exploding bolts) if it jams up?  Will they be using Robotics Studio at all?   At the end, what money did he owe you Charles?

  • William Staceystaceyw Before C# there was darkness...

    NASA should create a retail mars rover with robotic studio as the software platform and sell it.  Good way to raise money for the project and good education for kids and adults.  Could integrate the hw with an Xbox game with missions and 3d landscapes extruded from the 2d pictures.  Now if I can just figure out how to incorporate guitar hero into a mission...

  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    Smiley That was my attempt at acting like a Mob Collector (note the shades). Just having some fun with Dave.
    C
  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    As we discussed in the interview, the software that drives the rovers is written in pure C (which is an evolutionary step for NASA given that just a few years ago they were still writing in Assembler). There is no room for a general purpose operating system given the extreme memory constraints. The rovers are running VxWorks RTOS (from WindRiver Software). There is a place for Microsoft Robotics, but it's not on the rovers themselves... Stay tuned.

    C
  • Christian Liensbergerlittleguru <3 Seattle

    Sven is going to love this one Smiley Me too. Thanks Charles.

  • Sven GrootSven Groot Don't worry... I'm a doctor.
    Yeah awesome video. The rovers are a testament to good engineering, still working so long after they were intended to without any possibility for maintenance (other than the software upgrades). I wonder what kind of capacity it has in terms of memory; obviously it needs quite a lot of space to store the scientific data and other stuff before it sends it home, but what is available for e.g. the autonomous driving program?

    A technical note about the video: I found having the voices separated (Charles in the left channel and Dave Lavery in the right channel) to be very distracting. If you look at professional video, even hollywood movies, they almost never put voices in the side channels (and if they do, it's for a short time only and usually a character that's off screen). Voice needs to be in the center pretty much always.
  • Christian Liensbergerlittleguru <3 Seattle
    I wonder what an uplink these rovers have. It would be interesting to know how fast the data is transferred from Mars to Earth.
  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    At the bginning of the interview Dave talks about how long it takes to communicate with the rovers from Earth. Now, if you do the math (left as an exercise for you) you can get the tranmission speed (distance from Earth is 100-300 million miles). Re-watch the first part and you'll have your answer.
    C
  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    These robots run in a very constricted runtime environment. I'm not sure about physical disk space. There's not much room for a lot of computing hardware.
    C
  • Christian Liensbergerlittleguru <3 Seattle
    Didn't he only mention how long it takes to get in contact. It would be interesting to know how fat the pipe is. Like how much data they get each second? Also... they probably don't use TCP/IP. Imagine a packet gets lost Big Smile The robot would wait forever to catch up again.
  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    I'll reach out to Dave and get an answer for you.
    C
  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    On a side note, check this out (Interplanetary Internet): http://www.ipnsig.org/aboutstudy.htm
    C
  • Christian Liensbergerlittleguru <3 Seattle
    Yeah. I have read about that project. It's really cool - and makes complete sense.

    I was thinking about the stuff that we discussed here yesterday in the evening. There must be quite a storage on the rovers. Imagine they do their work and are on the side of Mars that's not focusing to earth. They need to store the data until they get contact again. I know that there's a relay station in orbit - it might be that they buffer the data there but I'm not sure.

    These projects are faced very interesting problems!
  • PerfectPhasePerfectPhase "This is not war, this is pest control!" - Dalek to Cyberman

    It not the packet lost, it's the latency!  You're looking at 6.5 minutes just to get an ACK back before you send any data!

    Their datarate is 256Kbits/s max when relayed via the Odyssey orbiter, their direct link is something like 2Kbits/s

    BTW this is kind of intreasting http://hobbiton.thisside.net/rovermanual/
  • Christian Liensbergerlittleguru <3 Seattle
    2 kbit/sec and 256 kbit/sec. wow that's really not that much. Can't be much data that is transferred then.
  • Had this one bookmarked to watch for a while Charles, great video, very interesting.

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