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Mars Rovers Guided by Software Developed by UTA Graduate

January 7, 2004

As soon as the Mars Exploration Rovers leave their landers, they will be confronted with completing hundreds of maneuvers and scientific tasks. The order in which they do these tasks will be decided by computer software developed by a NASA team led by Kanna Rajan, a 1990 computer science and engineering master’s graduate and now a principal investigator and senior scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Spirit, the first of the rovers, is already on Mars and should be deployed in a few days. When it is, Rajan and a subset of his team will be in the main control room preparing to command the rover with their software. Rajan likens the rover’s tasks to collecting and placing hundreds of items in a bag. The software examines the items and decides the order and placement of the items to achieve the best collection, based on scientific importance, location and time and resources available.

Rajan said he and his NASA Ames and Jet Propulsion Laboratory team worked three "very difficult years on this effort, but it's exhilarating to get to this point, ready for surface mission operations, which is really what this mission is about." Their software, called MAPGEN (Mixed-Initiative Activity Plan GENerator), for building activity plans with complex constraints and dependencies will be the first published artificial intelligence-based system to command a rover on another planet.

Rajan credits some of his success to the personal attention he received as a student at UTA. "I owe a lot to Lynn Peterson [now associate dean of engineering] and the late Karan Harbison Briggs and the folks at ARRI [Automation & Robotics Research Institute] for guiding me through the rough spots. I also want to thank Dr. Carroll [now dean of engineering] for getting me a fellowship to support my studies when I joined UTA in 1987."

Opportunity, the second rover, is scheduled to arrive on Mars on January 24. Each rover carries five scientific instruments and a grinding tool. The rovers will spend at least three months investigating two sites that may have once hosted liquid water, which scientists consider a prerequisite for life.