Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rolling around on Mars Meet the Man Who Tells the Mars Rover Where to Roam

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rolling around on Mars Meet the Man Who Tells the Mars Rover Where to Roam

Article excerpt

Brian Cooper drives the ultimate in radio-controlled cars. From the air-conditioned comfort of his cubicle at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Mr. Cooper controls Sojourner, the six-wheeled rover inching its way across the surface of Mars.

Sojourner has special cameras and a device for "sniffing" out the chemicals in rocks. It's like having a geologist on Mars. Scientists want to know what Martian rocks are made of, because that might tell them whether there was ever life on Mars.

Cooper's job is to make sure Sojourner goes where the scientists want it to. Sojourner is really no different than a radio-guided monster truck from the toy store. It's powered by electricity and it's radio controlled. But Sojourner's electricity comes from batteries and a solar panel. Its radioed commands come from Earth, 120 million miles away. And the microwave-oven-sized rover is loaded with special equipment. It cost $25 million. Radio signals take 10-1/2 minutes to make a one-way trip to Mars from Earth, and Cooper also must wait for pictures to come back from the mission's electronic "photo lab" to see whether Sojourner went to the right place. So he doesn't drive Sojourner the way you would a radio-controlled car. Instead, he sends a group of commands telling the rover where the scientists want it to end up. The rover heads there with enough on-board smarts to stay out of trouble. At the end of the Martian day, engineers take a picture of the rover with the camera on the lander to see if Sojourner did what they asked it to. The picture is used to plan the rover's activity for the next day. Like many of the people taking part in this mission, Cooper set his sights on a job involving space exploration after watching United States astronauts land on the moon. "I was inspired by the 1969 moon landings and the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey,' " Cooper says. "I was always interested in how things worked and in optical illustions and our visual sense." His interest in illusions led him to become a professional magician. He's performed at Hollywood's Magic Castle since he was 14. Now he works with what he calls "that visual sense" in controlling the rover. When he came to JPL from the Air Force in 1985, he began working on ways to allow people to control robotic vehicles. He became the lead "test driver" for them. On this mission, Cooper explains, "scientists tell me, 'We want to go to this location.' " Sitting at his computer wearing special high-tech 3-D glasses, he looks at images of Pathfinder's landing site to "determine whether we can get there, based on the terrain. Can we get there in one day or two days? And along the way, let's try to fit in all these other science and engineering experiments." For the first week, he and his backup driver sent complicated commands that told Sojourner where to go and how to get there. …

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