Mars rover powered by 'little bits' of CMU

| Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012, 10:04 p.m.

When NASA's newest rover, “Curiosity,” lands on Mars early Monday, it will carry a byte or two from the ‘Burgh.

The rover, about the size of a Mini Cooper, will use navigation software developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Carnegie Mellon researchers also did traction studies on the vehicle's wheels.

Curiosity is expected to land at about 1:36 a.m. Monday.

“It's gratifying to see an idea we had long ago be used in this way,” said David Wettergreen, research professor in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, who has been involved in several NASA projects, including self-steering rover navigation and rough-terrain surface navigation. He also was involved in the wheel traction tests.

Even more gratifying, Wettergreen said, is the number of Carnegie Mellon grads — “a dozen Ph.D.s” — who went on to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, pulling all these “little bits and pieces of work” together.

“The typical Carnegie Mellon approach of meticulous attention to detail but pushing the envelope ... stretching the boundaries,” is a good fit at JPL, said David Thompson, who earned his doctorate in robotics from Carnegie Mellon in 2008 and joined JPL that year. He is working on projects involving climate change and making robots smarter.

The basis for the navigation system's software was developed about 20 years ago by Tony Stentz, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center, a component of the Robotics Institute, said Wettergreen. Stentz could not be reached for comment.

Earlier versions of the software guided the twin rovers “Opportunity” and “Spirit,” both of which landed on Mars in January 2004.

The software package allows the rovers to veer around obstacles and make scientific decisions on their own. They can survey a number of rocks, for instance, and decide which one to investigate.

The software on Opportunity and Spirit was updated in the winter of 2010, expanding their capabilities to go to different locations.

Launched in November, Curiosity's mission is to search for past and present life, study the climate and geology and collect data for a future manned mission to Mars.

Landing on Mars will be a complicated undertaking, requiring precise timing to slow the descent with rockets and parachutes. The spacecraft containing Curiosity also holds a component called a sky crane that will lower the rover to the surface. So complex is this part of the mission that NASA has dubbed it the “Seven Minutes of Terror.” JPL engineers said it will require six changes in the configuration of the spacecraft, 76 pyrotechnic devices and 500,000 lines of computer code.

From the top of Mars atmosphere to its surface, the descent will take about seven minutes. A signal from the rover to Earth will take about 14 minutes, so NASA won't know for seven minutes whether the landing worked or the rover crashed.

The landing will be broadcast on the Toshiba Vision screen in Times Square, which will begin broadcasting NASA TV at 11:30 p.m. Sunday through 4 a.m. Monday. A number of Internet sites will stream the NASA feed.

Dozens of public and private Curiosity landing parties are planned across the country. In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Science Center's Buhl Planetarium hosted programs Saturday and has another scheduled at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. It will host an hour-long, post-landing program Monday at noon.

Excitement among science buffs has been building, officials said.

“It's beyond excitement. This is the next generation of rover,” said Robert Marshall, program development coordinator for Buhl, which will broadcast any feed from Curiosity on Monday on televisions throughout the building.

Engineering data will be the first transmission from the rover if it survives the landing, Marshall said. Pictures will follow.

“It could take minutes or days, depending on what is functioning,” he said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy