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NASA Testing K9 Rover In Granite Quarry For Future Missions

Moffett Field - Oct 31, 2003
NASA scientists and engineers are testing new technologies using the K9 rover in a granite quarry near Watsonville, Calif., in preparation for future missions to Mars.

The demonstration will be conducted at Graniterock's A.R. Wilson Quarry Site in Aromas, Calif. Scientists chose the quarry site for the field experiment and to test its autonomous operational capabilities in a remote, non-vegetated location.

Graniterock offered its 100-year-old quarry operation to NASA after Graniterock learned that the space agency was looking for a site to test the rover.

"We need to take the rover into the field, away from our own backyard, in order to test how robust our technologies are," said Maria Bualat, a computer engineer at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., who is the K9 rover project lead. "However, the Bay Area is a lush tropical paradise compared to Mars, so we needed to find a place that wasn't covered in vegetation. Graniterock was kind enough to volunteer a portion of its quarry," she added.

"The goal of the K9 project is to integrate and demonstrate new robotic technologies that will enable NASA to meet the science goals of future Mars missions," said Bualat. Scientists hope to utilize new robotic technologies during NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission anticipated in 2009.

"The whole purpose of this research project is to ensure that this rover is as autonomous and reliable as possible. Autonomous instrument placement capability is essential for future Mars exploration," said Dr. Liam Pedersen, principle investigator for the K9 rover instrument placement project. "This is necessary to acquire samples, determine mineralogy, obtain microscopic images and other operations needed to understand the planet's geology and search for evidence of past life."

"The United States has gained so much from the space program over the years, and the plans to explore Mars by the end of the decade is another significant step in advancing America's lead in developing and applying advanced technologies," said Bruce W. Woolpert, Graniterock's president and CEO.

Developed jointly at NASA Ames and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., the K9 rover is a six-wheeled, solar-powered rover weighing 145 pounds (65 kg) that measures 63 inches (1.6 m) high. The K9 rover is modeled after a rover named "FIDO" (Field Integrated Design and Operations) developed at JPL about five years ago.

Due to the limited intelligence of current planetary rovers, it takes three martian days to complete the process of directing a rover to a targeted rock and placing an instrument on the rock to begin scientific analysis of it. Scientists at NASA Ames hope to be able to accomplish that objective in a single day, thereby increasing the efficiency of obtaining science data in future missions.

David Smith, a computer scientist at NASA Ames, leads the research group that is responsible for developing the rover's automated planning and scheduling software. In previous missions, there has been very little automation of the planning and scheduling process for planetary rovers, according to Smith.

"What's unique about this software that is being developed at NASA Ames is that it generates contingency plans to provide an alternative that can be executed when things go wrong," Smith said. "There is a great deal of uncertainty in operating a robotic system on Mars, so you need to be able to consider alternatives. By having options available, you increase the science return."

"NASA near-term Mars missions have very ambitious science goals that will require high levels of autonomy onboard the robot," said Bualat. "Our goal is to have a 'smart robot' that we can send off to Mars in 2009 that will take care of itself."

Related Links
Mars at JPL
Robotics at JPL
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Mars Rovers Underscore Rise Of Machines In Space Exploration
Pasadena - Jun 09, 2003
On Monday, June 9th, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project kicks off by launching the first of two unique robotic geologists. The identical rolling rovers see sharper images, can explore farther and examine rocks better than anything that's ever landed on Mars. Each rover can explore up to half a kilometer (just under one-third of a mile) away from their respective touchdown locations.

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