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University of Iowa News Release

May 4, 2005

UI Engineer Receives $835,000 NASA Robotics Grant

Geb Thomas, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and robotics expert in the University of Iowa College of Engineering, has received a three-year, $835,000 NASA grant to participate in a robotic project to explore Chile's Atacama Desert.

Working as project principal investigator and in collaboration with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and NASA Ames Research laboratory in California, Thomas will use the study to prepare for future robotic investigations of Mars.

"Our research approach is to study scientists as they work with information generated by rovers or information that simulates data collected by rovers," he says. "Through this analysis, we seek to discover exactly what scientists do with the information they receive in order to make scientific observations and form scientific hypotheses. Having learned what scientists seek and how they seek it, we will consider the minutia of the analysis process to discover the quantitative limits of the scientific inferences that may be drawn, how the rover and its instruments affect these limits and how scientists might misinterpret the results of these analyses. We will specifically emphasize interpretation biases, interpretation precision and misinterpretations that could lead to significant errors in the scientific conclusions."

In 2003, Thomas assisted NASA geologists charged with interpreting the visual data returned by NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity. At a simulated Martian environment in the Arizona desert, he familiarized NASA geologists with camera distortion and resolution issues, as well as the relative smoothness of rocks the Rovers might encounter during the mission. Such issues were critical to determining whether some Martian rocks were likely shaped by surface water at some point during the planet's history.

"We hypothesized that camera blurring might make the grains appear rounder and flatter than they actually were," Thomas says. "Our analysis revealed that if the grains occupied very few pixels in the image, they could not be reliably analyzed. It also revealed that although camera blurring tended to make images of rocks appear rounder and flatter than physical specimens, this bias was very small compared to the uncertainty in the scientists' subjective determination of the grain characteristics. Our co-investigators and Mars mission scientists Nathlie Cabrol and Edmond Grin used these findings in their analysis of microscopic images collected by the Microscopic Imager onboard the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Our research led directly towards improving the quality of the scientific results of an actual rover mission."

Thomas says that the desert's aridity, high UV radiation, and loss of surface water following climatic change make it an ideal model for Mars. The researchers, who began their work in late 2004, will return to Chile during two one-week sessions in September and October of 2005 -- when it is spring in the Southern Hemisphere. Their science activities will include: investigate geologic setting and process; obtain fluorescent/visible light images of colonies of photosynthetic bacteria; determine spatial distribution and composition of minerals, rocks, and soils; determine mineralogy, particularly aqueous materials that may preserve climate and biology evidence; observe weather and incident sunlight for possible correlation with biotic process and habitat features; and assist in the development of tactical and strategic exploration plans and coordinate decisions.

Thomas says that he hopes engineers will once again be able to help scientists and engineers communicate their needs objectively in a common language in order to advance robotic space exploration. His colleagues on the project include Peter Coppin and David Wettergreen of Carnegie Mellon University; Nathalie Cabrol and Edmond Grin of NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; and Erin Pudenz and Justin Glasgow of the UI.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009,