CONTACT: GARY GALLUZZO
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0009; fax (319) 384-0012
Release: August 6, 1999
UI engineers, geologists travel to Utah to test Mars
IOWA CITY, Iowa How does a geologist think?
That's one of the questions a team of University of
Iowa engineering and geology students hope to answer when they travel to Park
City, Utah August 7-14. While there, the team will test new technology and
verify intellectual models they have been developing for use in future Mars
exploration missions by NASA.
According to Geb Thomas, UI assistant professor of
industrial engineering and Graphical Representation of Knowledge (GROK) Lab
director, Utah is a perfect test site. "The mountains are a great analog for
testing robotic technology headed for Mars," he said, "and a great place for
the students to develop teamwork. The purpose is to get going on the technology
for our prototypes."
Funded by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium (ISGC),
the Project Marvin team includes student researchers from the UI College of
Engineering and the department of geology in the UI College of Liberal Arts.
Team members, their areas of study and hometowns are: Mike Bauerly, engineering,
Council Bluffs; Steven Dow, engineering, Urbandale; Simona Fischer, engineering,
Iowa City; Nyssa Loeppke, geology, Dubuque; Rose Mills, biomedical engineering,
Burlington; Chris Petrie, engineering, Dixon, Ill.; Martin Rick, engineering,
Muscatine; Fitzgerald Steele, Jr., graduate student in industrial engineering,
Richfield, Minn.; and Beth Wyatt, engineering, Shell Rock. (Also, Shelley
McClarigan of Paul Smiths, N.Y., a computer science major at St. Bonaventure
University in Olean, N.Y., is a UI team member under the National Science
Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program.)
Thomas said that he and the other team members hope
to submit their technology designs to NASA in the form of project proposals
for inclusion in future Mars exploration missions. Mark Reagan, associate
professor of geology, and Art Bettis, visiting assistant professor of geology,
are collaborators on the project.
"As far as I know, nobody has tried to figure out
how a geologist thinks. A successful model of how geologists think about problems
could lead to the development of a robotic geologist," Thomas said. Developing
an intellectual model will be a challenging exercise in computer software
design because it involves blending a sequence of movements that can be performed
by a robot with the variety of activities to collect data of interest to geologists.
In addition to the intellectual model being developed
by Jerry Steele, the UI team will test ThrowCam, a camera and video transmitter
that can be safely thrown at prospective study sites. "The idea is that existing
robots cannot get to some Mars sites, such as the bottom of a cliff, where
there may be interesting rock strata to investigate. With this device, when
we see a scientific target, we can simply throw a camera at it and image the
site," Thomas said. Chris Petrie, who also serves as a project manager along
with Nyssa Loeppke, has headed ThrowCam development.
Another potential exploration tool being tested is
the EndoCam. The device -- a camera with a lens at the end of a long, flexible
fiber optic bundle -- is similar to endoscopes widely used in industry and
medicine to view otherwise inaccessible spaces. The team plans to slide it
into fractured rocks in hopes of learning more about the history of rock formation
on Mars and finding a protected environment for primitive life forms, should
life exist on Mars. EndoCam's lead developers, Mike Bauerly and Beth Wyatt,
have combined the camera with a fluorescence spectrometer, giving them the
ability to take readings from the fresh surfaces in the fractured rocks.
Finally, the team plans to test a pan and tilt camera
that will give NASA researchers a 360-degree view of the Martian surface.
Panoramic cameras have already been used on Mars missions, but suffer from
distortion resulting from the camera not being located at the center of rotation.
Martin Rick and Rose Mills, lead developers on the pan and tilt camera system,
have been developing methods to correct for the distortion, as well as finding
a new way of presenting the images to geologists.
After all the data has been collected from the test
in Park City, it will be placed in a database developed by Shelley McClarigan.
By classifying the data and organizing it into a database, the team hopes
to organize the data so that it can be used more effectively used by geologists.
The database will allow geologists to make notations and view data over the
This is not the first time that Thomas and UI GROK
Lab engineering students have been involved in a robotic project involving
simulated Martian terrain. In June and July 1997, a Carnegie Mellon University-designed
robot, called Nomad, conducted a 45-day, 120-mile trek across the Atacama
Desert in Chile to test its durability and versatility for future trips to
the moon and Mars. Thomas and the UI GROK lab developed the computer interface
that allowed visitors to a Pittsburgh lab to control the robot via remote
control. In addition, the GROK lab is currently part of a "dream team" of
robotics laboratories working on Pioneer, a robot designed to enter the ruined
Chernobyl nuclear reactor in an effort to help Ukrainian engineers assess
For more information about the GROK Lab and Project
Marvin, visit the GROK Lab web site at http://grok.ecn.uiowa.edu.
The NASA-funded, non-profit ISGC was established in
1990, with additional support from academic affiliates, industry and Iowa
aerospace associations. Its academic affiliates are the UI, where the GROK
Lab is the lead organization; Iowa State University; the University of Northern
Iowa and Drake University. Its purpose is to coordinate and improve Iowa's
future in aerospace science, design and technology, and its focus is to stimulate
aerospace research, education and outreach activities throughout Iowa.