Other Work

Cautious Mars Rover Gets Ready to Roll as Anxious Drivers Wait;
Geared to Survive, Golf-Cart-Size Robot Will Be the First to Strike Out on Its Own

By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post | Monday, Jan. 12, 2004, pg. A02

PASADENA, Calif. –A hundred million miles away, in a windswept desert basin near the Martian equator, a tiny visitor from Earth -- like the most cautious of tourists -- is taking its time, consulting its guidebooks and checking its footwear before heading out to see the sights.

Back on Earth, ace rover driver Brian Cooper can barely wait to head for the Martian hills.

If all goes well later this week, the golf-cart-size robot will become the first of its kind to cut the umbilical cord to its landing platform and strike out on its own across an alien frontier. In terms of scientific potential and sheer exploratory verve, the event marks a major advance. And for Cooper and seven other rover drivers, it will mean the launch of what may be the ultimate interactive video game, as they send their emissary toward a series of carefully chosen destinations -- and virtually ride along.

The drivers have mastered 900 computer commands to be sent across space to their roving Spirit, Cooper said. Each day, they must take into account the nuances of Martian dust and weather, the relative motions of the sun and two planets, the timing of communications relays from two U.S. orbiters that pass periodically over the landing site and the availability of tracking stations on Earth.

Cooper is no beginner. He previously "drove" the roller-skate-size 1997 Pathfinder rover, which depended on its landing station for survival and had a repertoire of only about 80 commands. His team here has been working on improvements in the roving software ever since, he said in an interview last week.

Now with the arrival of the new generation -- Spirit as well as her sister craft Opportunity, once she lands on or about Jan. 24 -- he said, "We are free. . . .We can go over the horizon. . . "