Volcano Watch — Mars rover tests

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From February 13-18, the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the National Park Service will host a team of scientists and engineers from NASA, McDonnell Douglas Aerospace and the JASON Foundation for Education at the Kīlauea caldera for a series of tests using a robotic vehicle designed for use on the moon and Mars.

From February 13-18, the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the National Park Service will host a team of scientists and engineers from NASA, McDonnell Douglas Aerospace and the JASON Foundation for Education at the Kīlauea caldera for a series of tests using a robotic vehicle designed for use on the moon and Mars. Most of this column, which describes the Marsokhod Rover tests to be conducted, was provided by scientists from NASA and McDonnell Douglas.

The rover is a six-wheeled, 300-pound rover to be operated remotely by planetary scientists located at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA. These tests are being conducted in conjunction with the JASON VI Expedition, an educational television production, which will take place in the National Park starting in late February.

The primary objective of the caldera tests is to evaluate how well a robot can be used to conduct scientific observations on other worlds. Different methods of remote operation will be compared to see which provides the most efficient interface between the human scientists and the vehicle. In addition, tests will evaluate the maneuverability and reliability of the rover over diverse terrains.

The test site chosen is a geologically unique but environmentally sensitive part of the National Park. Kīlauea is probably the only place in the world where such diverse geologic features are found both close together and in proximity to a paved road. The explosive eruptions at the summit of Kīlauea in 1790 and 1924 produced terrains that are rare on Earth, but are thought to be analogous to those on the moon and Mars. In particular, Apollo astronauts found fragmental deposits on the moon that are similar in many ways to the 1790 Keanakakoi Ash. The presence of thick volcanic ash deposits may also explain why a large portion of Mars reflects essentially no radar energy. Additionally, the rocks thrown from the 1924 explosions at Halema'uma'u are an excellent analog of the blocky ejecta from meteorite impacts. Special precautions will be taken during testing to preserve this area for future generations.

The rover which will be used for these tests was originally designed in Russia for a Mars mission planned for launch in 1998. Its name is Marsokhod, which translates as "Mars Walker". The same Russian team built the successful Lunakhod rovers which operated on the moon in 1970-71. The rover is roughly 5 feet long and 3 feet wide. Its wheels are 12 inches in diameter and are made of titanium. Each is driven by an individual motor, and the rover has a maximum speed of approximately 1500 feet per hour. Because of its unique design, the rover can overcome obstacles 50% larger than its wheels, and can climb slopes of up to 30 degrees. On-board batteries allow untethered operation of up to 6 hours.

The rover is equipped with a number of instruments for use by both vehicle operators and scientists. Up to 6 cameras may be used to provide views of the rover and its surroundings. Two of the cameras are used to provide stereo imaging. They are mounted to a mast roughly at human eye level. Operators can use computers to create three-dimensional images from the views provided by these cameras. A high resolution camera can provide views of details as small as 0.04 inches in size. This camera is placed by the remote scientists with the aid of a robotic arm.

The rover transmits data and video via radio signal. From the Observatory, this information will be sent by satellite to NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA, where it is used to create a three dimensional computer model of the rover and surrounding terrain. This technology, called virtual reality, helps operators plan moves and also provides scientists with the sensation of being present at the remote site.

A special 3-D TV display, provided by StereoGraphics Corporation, will allow visitors at the Jaggar Museum in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, to have a "robot's eye view." This method of wearing 3-D glasses gives the viewer the feeling of being on the rover, or 'telepresent."

NASA and McDonnell Douglas have been working jointly with the Russian Marsokhod team since 1993 to further develop the rover's electronics and control system. The testing to be performed this month is the latest in a series of field tests involving progressively more sophisticated control sytems and realistic terrains. In addition to the planned Mars mission, this international team has proposed that the rover be used for lunar exploration. Under this proposal, the rover would be utilized to study a volcanic region of the moon known as Aristarchus. This mission would provide clues regarding the formation of the moon, and may also provide new insights into volcanic processes that operate on Earth as well as the Moon.

On the Presidents' Day holiday on February 20, the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, the National Park Service, the National Biological Service, Kīlauea Military Camp, the Center for the Study of Active Volcanism at the University of Hawaii, and NASA will combine efforts for a day of special events at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The entrance fee to the Park will be waived that day.

NASA and The Planetary Society will have the Marsokhod Mars Rover on display doing some remotely-operated test excursions. The test team will make the Marsokhod rover available for viewing in front of the Jaggar Museum, and tours of the rover control station in the tower of the Volcano Observatory will be given. In addition, a children's art contest will be held to draw the rover at Kīlauea caldera or on a Mars volcano. The prize for the best drawing in each age group will be an opportunity to drive the rover!

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory will be open to the public, and together with earth scientists from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, we will have demonstrations of the techniques we use to monitor the volcanoes, short talks on the geology of Kīlauea's summit, and updates of the ongoing eruptive activity. Additional interactive activities allow you to explore the rocks that make up the islands, discover why earthquakes occur, smell the different gases that the volcanoes emit, and ask questions to an earth scientist. Many of these activities are specifically designed for children. In addition, there will be special displays and materials for teachers.

The National Park Service will have a series of ranger-led hikes through various parts of the Park and will have a festival of various films about the geology and biology of the Park. The National Biological Service will have an open-house of their Research Center and lead several guided hikes. KMC is also opening to the public its facilities including the cafeteria, bowling alley, general store, and gas station. Next week's column will give you the detailed schedule of events for this special `Day in the Park.' Mark your calendar and plan to come and experience the worlds of planetary exploration, volcano monitoring, and the ecology and archaeology of the Park.