Prototype of the Mars Pathfinder microrover. The actual vehicle going to Mars will be topped by a flat solar panel. The microrover carries an experiment to test the composition of the rocks it encounters. It stands about 32 cm high and is 65 cm long. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL.
From sites in Hawaii, California, Utah, and Ontario, Canada, middle-school students drove miniature robotic vehicles of their own design (similar in concept to Mars Pathfinder's "microrover") to remotely explore the surface of Mars. Well-- not actually on Mars, but on terrains that were made by students to resemble Mars, complete with volcanoes, impact craters, boulders, and canyons.
On February 15, 1995, The Planetary Society teamed up with LEGO Dacta Corporation (makers of the LEGO building blocks) and the Center for Intelligent Systems at Utah State University, to launch this pilot program for a hands-on educational experience. Students designed and built rovers from kits supplied by LEGO and created Mars terrains using photos and geologic information provided by the Planetary Society.
However, the Red Rover school teams did not explore their own sites. Each team linked with a partner team thousands of miles distant to remotely explore an alien terrain. Students in south-central Los Angeles drove a rover built in Hawaii, while the Logan, Utah, team explored Mars terrain in Toronto, Canada.
Remote control of the rovers was made possible using a computer communication program developed by the Center for Intelligent Systems. The program uses a modem and regular telephone lines, and can send the image seen by a small camera mounted on the rover to any location in the world. Student drivers study the image to determine the best moves to make. The program then relays the commands to the rover and the vehicle, thousands of miles away, moves across the alien landscape as directed.
The students involved had to tackle problems related to robotics, communications, computer control, and teamwork. To build their own Mars-scape, they learned about martian geology and the kinds of questions scientists try to answer with spacecraft and surface landers. In preparation for the 1996-97 Mars Pathfinder mission and the anticipated results of it's microrover, The Planetary Society is planning to expand the Red Rover Project worldwide. The expanded program will include a diverse number of schools, Mars landscapes, and rover designs. Educational material and on-line computer activities are planned to accompany each Red Rover Link-Up Day.
For more information, educators should write to:
The Planetary Society Attn: Red Rover 65 N. Catalina Ave. Pasadena, CA, 91106-2301 or e-mail to: TPS@genie.geis.com