May 1997 Volume 6 Number 2

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Drivin' With Mr. Cooper: A July Sojourn on Mars

by Amalia Kingsbury, ASU College of Education and Arizona Mars K-12 Education Program

Red dust rises as a miniature vehicle roams the martian landscape. This rover is extraordinary. It has small cameras and lasers that guide it on its exploration of the dusty planet. These devices allow it to detect obstacles and go around them without having to radio for help. The lander, Mars Pathfinder relays daily instructions to the rover from the Rover Team back on Earth. This Fourth of July, the microrover, Sojourner, will be part of an awesome experiment. For the first time in history, a rover will explore the surface of Mars. This rover has an officially licensed driver; his name is Brian Cooper.

Sojourner has the ability to drive up to rocks and to determine their chemical composition using an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). The Mars Pathfinder team wanted to land somewhere that we might find a wide variety of rock types for Sojourner to examine. The team selected a flood channel site because floods carry and deposit rocks from far-away places. Mars Pathfinder is set to land on July 4, 1997, near 19.5 degrees North, 32.8 degrees West, in Ares Vallis.

Sojourner will be operated by an engineering team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Brian Cooper is the main driver for the rover. He wrote a program called "Rover Control Workstation" which allows the rover driver to create a sequence of commands that will tell the vehicle what to do. An image of the martian landscape obtained by Mars Pathfinder's IMP camera will appear on Brian's computer screen. (Note: IMP was built by the University of Arizona, Tucson). The IMP images are seen in stereo (3-dimensions) using special liquid crystal goggles.

The Mars Pathfinder science teams will meet and discuss where they want the rover to go, then share this information with the Rover Team. Using a joystick, Brian will move a little icon that resembles the rover. The icon can be placed anywhere on the IMP image of Mars, and a command sequence (computer program) will be automatically generated that tells the rover to go to the spot that Brian has indicated on his screen.

November 1995: Brian Cooper gets his license from Governor Lowry of Washington. Photo courtesy Fran O'Rourke, Cedar Wood Elementary School, Washington.

Once the command sequence is ready, there will be a short meeting to coordinate the schedules of both Sojourner and Mars Pathfinder, and to make sure there are no mistakes in the instructions. Then the information will be radioed up to Mars using NASA's Deep Space Network. The Deep Space Network is a set of three large communication dishes, spaced evenly around the Earth in Australia, Spain, and the United States. Mars Pathfinder will receive the instructions and relay them to the rover. Sojourner wil only receive one set of commands per day!

Brian Cooper is officially licensed to drive on the Red Planet! School teacher, Fran O'Rourke and her students at Cedar Wood Elementary in Everett, Washington, put together a driver's license for Brian. They flew him up to Washington and the then-governor Mike Lowry administered a "road test" using a model of Sojourner. The governor applied the state seal and signed the first official Martian Driver's License. Thanks to Mars scientist and ASU alumnus Robert Craddock, the license spent some time on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Brian Cooper not only has the first, offical martian driver's license, he also has a pilot's license and is currently building an airplane in his garage! He was also in the U.S. Air Force, where he developed his interest in robotics. So, get ready! On July 4th, he will help us all take our first ride on the Red Planet!

TES News is published quarterly by the Arizona Mars K-12 Education Program. This newsletter may be copied for EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY.

EDITED BY Kenneth S. Edgett, Arizona Mars K-12 Education Program, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA.