Exploring Mars on Your PC


Paul Backes is sharpening his "WITS" for a 2001 Mars-rover mission, and he welcomes your help.

The robotics engineer here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has designed an innovative "virtual rover" program for the World Wide Web. The service will allow anyone with a computer and a speedy modem to design his or her own route for a Mars rover to follow on the planet's surface.

The interactive project, known as the Web Interface for Telescience, is more than a slicked up online video game, however. It is the test version of a tool that will help scientists in far-flung locations plan and execute the next Mars rover mission. Expected to last over a year, the mission is scheduled for launch in 2001.

According to Dr. Backes, the current Pathfinder mission is short enough for all involved to participate every day. "But for 2001 and a year-long mission, and a large science team, it's not feasible for everyone to be at JPL the whole time."

Because of the complexity of the 2001 mission, Mr. Backes set out to find a way to keep the scientists in touch with each other, and a rover 120 million miles away. Because it works with popular browsers like Netscape or Microsoft Explorer and doesn't care if a user has a Mac or a PC, Java was the natural foundation for WITS, he says.

In its current version, the program uses panorama shots from Mars Pathfinder to set the scene, placing the home user's icon in the Pathfinder's approximate position. Once the images are loaded, users can plant "markers" near places they want their rover to go, and watch as the rover icon follows the command.

Schoolchildren, perhaps the group most likely to make use of WITS, have given the system an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

In May, WITS underwent field tests along with Rocky 7, a prototype for the 2001 rover. During a segment of the trials, students in Helsinki and five US cities worked together via the Internet, testing commands for the rover as the machine inched its way across the rock-studded Mojave Desert.

Although it is still a work in progress, Backes sees WITS as a way to share the excitement of space exploration even while outreach budgets are tight.

"I was 10 years old when we landed on the moon, and I was totally enthralled," he says. "Then, you could watch it on TV all afternoon. With Mars, you can't watch it live. With a tool like WITS, we can engage the public and those 10-year-olds through the Internet."

The address for the WITS web site, which includes detailed information on how to operate the program, is: mars.graham.com/wits/index.html

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