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Java Runs NASA Mars Rovers

Java Runs NASA Mars Rovers

When the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Mars Exploration Rover, Spirit, successfully landed on Mars on January 3, 2004, Java was there too. The Mars Rovers devices, developed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in conjunction with Wind River, use the Java platform as a low-cost, easy-to-use option for the program controlling the Rovers' operating system.

Why Java? James Gosling, JPL advisory board member and "Father of Java," explains that it's due to Java's ability to transcend many platforms. "They can have scientists all over the world looking at the data but collaboratively deciding on the way the mission should proceed," said Gosling. "They are all speaking different languages when they talk to the rover but everybody in the control room is using Java."

Spirit is sending as much as 150 megabits of data daily to NASA scientists, and that datastream will increase when the sister rover, Opportunity, lands on January 24. To deal with this data, Sun Microsystems and NASA built four operational storage servers at the JPL that altogether can hold four terabytes of data.

The Java program used on the robotic rovers is nearly identical to the JPL's online program Maestro that allows site visitors to guide a simulated rover across a 3-D Martian terrain. (To try out the Java-based data browser Maestro and drive a simulated dune buggy on Mars, see http://mars.telascience.org/.)

Java's journey to Mars began nearly ten years ago, when JPL scientists began experimenting with Java as a language for the command and control system for the 1995 Mars Sojourner. When the JPL team brought their work to Sun Microsystems' attention, James Gosling, father of Java, became intrigued, and spent so much time at the Pasadena space lab that he became an advisory board member. "They (the JPL team) are doing things that people think are science fiction," said Gosling. "It's a place to have your mind blown." (See James Gosling's weblog for more of his comments on the Mars Rovers.)

The Spirit is one of two twin robot geologists running on Wind River's real-time operating system (RTOS), VxWorks. The second twin, Opportunity, is scheduled to land on Mars on January 24, 2004. On Mars, Spirit will perform complex tasks, such as trajectory, descent and ground operations control, data collection, and Mars-to-Earth communication relay.

In addition to powering the Mars Rovers, Wind River's technology also operates within NASA JPL's Stardust spacecraft. Stardust is the first United States space mission dedicated solely to the exploration of a comet, named Wild 2, and the first robotic mission designed to return extraterrestrial material from outside the orbit of the Moon. This month, Stardust will complete its four-year journey from Earth, arriving within 100 kilometers of the speeding nucleus of Wild 2 to collect dust samples from the comet's tail in order to help answer fundamental questions regarding the origins of the solar system. Wind River's VxWorks RTOS is responsible for Stardust's flight trajectory and path, the collection of interstellar dust and cometary material, the journey back to Earth, and the safe landing of the return capsule.

The Mars Exploration Rovers and the Stardust missions are part of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA's lead center for robotic exploration of the solar system, which is managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA. To learn more about Mars Exploration Rovers, go to marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/. To learn more about Stardust, go to stardust.jpl.nasa.gov.

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JDJ News Desk monitors the world of Java to present IT professionals with updates on technology advances, business trends, new products and standards in the Java and i-technology space.

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