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Artificial intelligence, genuine results
Mars rover software designer credits UTA’s real-world focus

Kanna Rajan ('90 MSCSE)
Kanna Rajan ('90 MSCSE)

Kanna Rajan has his head in the clouds. Beyond them, actually.

Dr. Rajan, who earned a master's degree in computer science and engineering from UTA in 1990, led a team of scientists in developing software to control NASA's Mars rovers. The first rover, Spirit, landed in early January; the second, Opportunity, arrived later that month. Rajan's software, which is based on concepts of artificial intelligence, allows scientists to send daily instructions and prioritize experiments.

The twin robotic rovers are part of an $820 million mission that has occupied Rajan's time--up to 18 hours a day--for three years. The rovers have returned the most detailed three-dimensional photos of the Martian surface ever taken, even showing signs that water once existed on the planet.

"It's very thrilling in the sense that you're making an impact," Rajan said. "You want to go out and say that you've made an impact, and we can say that."

It's what he has always wanted to say. Rajan, 41, grew up in New Delhi, India, and watched NASA's Viking Project reach Mars in 1976. That shaped his future: He was determined to become a NASA scientist.

He arrived at UTA in 1987 and after graduating went to work for American Airlines, designing artificial intelligence software. He was hired by NASA after completing his doctorate, becoming a senior scientist and principal investigator at Moffett Field, Calif. The software his team designed for this mission is called MAPGEN (Mixed-Initiative Activity Plan Generator) and is designed to help the rovers conduct scientific experiments with the Martian soil. The six-wheel, 385-pound rovers have a robotic arm and five other scientific instruments.

Rajan's software controls the rovers, but it doesn't pilot them. That's done manually with a joystick he likens to a child's remote-control toy. "It's the same thing," he said. "That's what we do at NASA."

The Computer Science and Engineering Department named Rajan its Distinguished Alumnus in March, and he delivered a 90-minute talk to a crowd of students, faculty and staff in Nedderman Hall, staying to visit one on one with some afterward. He's happy to give back, he says, to a university that gave so much to him. He credits CSE with giving him the basics of artificial intelligence that he uses now at NASA. He said UTA has it right, focusing on what's applicable for life, not for a test.

"It's not just, 'Oh, go get the book.' You have to go out into the real world. You have to make a difference. How do you apply this in formal ways of science? [Elsewhere,] everyone's focus is exams, and that has to be the foundation of your ideas. But enjoy the real world. When you hit reality, what impact have you left? That's when you make a difference. That's when it's special."

He's special, too, say those who knew Rajan as a graduate student. Lynn Peterson, associate dean of engineering, remembers him being bright and dedicated. "We knew he would go far, but no one thought of his software going to Mars. I'm just so pleased to see that he was able to continue what obviously piqued his interest right away."

Rajan's wife and two children will be his focus once this mission ends. Until then, his time will be spent making sure that what happened in mid-January doesn't happen again. Only hours after Spirit sent back to Earth its first pictures, NASA lost contact with the rover. It took Rajan's team more than two weeks to fix the glitch.

The Mars successes are helping erase memories of NASA's last headlines, the death of the astronauts--including alumna Kalpana Chawla--aboard the space shuttle Columbia in February 2003. Rajan said that no one will ever forget the crew or the mistakes NASA made but that reaching Mars proves "NASA is still NASA."

"Columbia should never have happened," he said. "But we're accentuating the positives. A lot of people want to know why we should spend millions on reaching another planet when we have economic problems here. Why aren't we spending money on missiles and B-52s? It does you no good unless you put your money into science. Do something interesting."

Going to Mars counts.

— Danny Woodward

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