UA Student Runs Tucson's Remote Center for Mars Rover Mission

UA STUDENT RUNS TUCSON'S REMOTE CENTER FOR MARS ROVER MISSION From Lori Stiles, UA News Services, 520-621-1877 September 22, 2004
Like some phenomenal high school quarterback drafted into the NFL, University of Arizona undergraduate Nicole Spanovich has made it as a pro. But her skill is in helping run rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, on Mars.
Spanovich, a UA astronomy senior, is running a remote operations center for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission in Tucson. She set it up at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory's Phoenix Project building, 1415 N. Sixth Ave., last month.
The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., announced yesterday that NASA has extended the Mars rover mission for another six months, as long as the rovers continue to roll.
------------------------------------------------- Contact Information Nicole Spanovich 520-626-9661 Peter H. Smith 520-621-2725
Related Web sites Mars Rover mission / Nicole Spanovich @ JPL --------------------------------------------------
Spanovich began working at the JPL in December, when UA planetary scientist Peter H. Smith offered her the chance to work with his group on the Mars rover mission.
"When I went to JPL last December, I figured I'd be home in April," Spanovich said. "I had no idea there would be an option for me to stay."
"Nicole has found her calling in life as a spacecraft operator," Smith said. "Despite the long hours and tight schedules, she's persevered for more than eight months, tackling each challenge with intelligence and good spirit.
"Now, with remote operations, we are devoting more time to the scientific analysis aspect of the mission," Smith added. "Nicole will help us navigate through the huge database that has been created by the two rovers. The potential for new discoveries has never been greater, as the rovers are finally positioned in exciting locations miles from where they landed."
NASA's nominal 90-day rover mission was to have ended last April, but the U.S. space agency funded it for an extra $15 million to continue through September.
Over the summer, mission scientists scrutinized rover power models, assessed how the robot vehicles handled the martian environment as winter approached, and "realized the rovers weren't dying anytime soon," Spanovich said. "They really pushed for a plan for remote operations," she said. NASA agreed.
NASA will extend the already extended Mars rover mission as of Oct. 1. About 50 selected team members from around the country and the world are involved in the remote operations network, according to JPL information people.
UA's remote MER operations center is furnished with a "MER board." This versatile, giant screen can display live Internet pages, mission data and schedules, a digital clock on Mars time, laptop screens projected on other MER boards in the network, or interactive Webcamcasts of science operations working group meetings held at JPL.
The MER board is the medium Spanovich uses to share information during daily science team meetings, end-of-Sol (Mars day) discussions, rover activity planning sessions, or other sessions that she attends by audio conference and Web cam.
But the Linux box is the real brains of remote MER operations. "It's exactly like the machine I worked with at JPL, except that it's been reconfigured with software needed for remote operations," she said.
Spanovich uses the Linux box to view rover operations plans developed at JPL. She also uses the Linux computer to add science observations to be built into sequences that will run future rover activities. Working her assigned, scheduled shifts, Spanovich will enter software commands for the atmospheric sciences group, the microscopic imager and the engineering cameras.
Sending uplink commands that run the rovers requires a bit more courage than keeping track of data during download operations, she noted.
In collaboration with two scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff and another at NASA Ames, Spanovich will handle microscope imager and engineering camera uplink duties for Opportunity throughout October. She is training UA post-doctoral researcher Pete Lanagan as UA's MER operations center back-up.
Opportunity is presently near the bottom of what scientists call "Endurance Crater." Researchers plan to send the rover along the inside of the crater, then climb to explore layered rocks, eventually exiting up and over the crater rim near the spacecraft's heat shield.
Spirit, meanwhile, commanded by JPL researchers, will continue climbing what's known as the "Columbia Hills," working its way up for another view of Gusev Crater.
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