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A Dream of Mars

Mars
 NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS 
WRITTEN BY MIKENNA PIEROTTI

When the students and professors at West Virginia University turn off the lights at the Interactive Robotics Laboratory and head home for the day or night, there is time for robot dreams.
Though not an android, Cataglyphis could perhaps dream of electric sheep. But there are more fantastical dreams in store for him. They’d probably be of bravely traversing a cold, rusty planet on one of the most important missions humanity (or robot kind) has ever embarked upon.

Named for a desert ant that can travel far and still find its way home, the long metal-necked robot with the clear plastic body is where few robots have been. He’s arguably one of the finest amateur robot minds outside of NASA because he can find rocks without seeing them.

He’s accomplished a lot in his short existence. Won awards. Made headlines. And put WVU’s robotics program on the map. And as early as 2026, Cataglyphis’s dreams might just come true. 

He won three levels of a NASA competition designed to attract new technology for a future Mars rover. The calculations programmed into his brain by the WVU Robotics Team helped him in the final level of the Sample Robot Return Challenge to travel the equivalent of the length of the Coliseum court 34 times, search 17 cache sites and successfully collect five samples in wide, diverse terrain in just two hours — completely autonomously.

That’s the sort of skill that NASA wants because the most important planetary science goal for earthlings right now is mapping Mars’ surface, collecting samples and bringing them 35 million miles back to Earth for study. 

“Some of the judges of the Challenge were very high-level division leaders at NASA. So winning the Challenge opened a lot of doors for us to talk to those people who then helped us dream up this idea,” said Yu Gu, associate professor of mechanical engineering and leader of the WVU Robotics team.

Yu Gu

Scott Harper (left) examines A CHART as Yu Gu (RIGHT) watches during the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2016. (Photo by Jennifer Shephard)

The idea is to work closely with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Robotics group, which has built all the Mars rovers and “is at the heart of pretty much all the planetary exploration,” Gu says. 

As a first step, Cataglyphis will go out to Tygart Lake in Taylor County, W.Va., when the waters have been drained. The team hopes the dry, rocky lake bed will provide a good setting for Cataglyphis to prepare for the surface of Mars.

“But Tygart Lake is about as Mars-like as West Virginia can go,” Gu says. So if Cataglyphis proves himself in the Mountain State, he’ll be clear to take on a harder challenge. “We are also going to do a test in Utah at a place called the Mars Desert Research Station. It’s a very good Mars simulation environment.” There, Cataglyphis and the students will test their wits again in the annual University Rover Challenge. 

What lies after that rests on NASA, Congress and on Cataglyphis himself. 

The current Mars rover you probably know. It’s Curiosity, an eventual successor of the first mission to make landing on Mars, Viking 1 in 1975. But Curiosity’s generation of rovers is slow — traveling 30–40 meters on a good day — and not as spatially aware as NASA would like.

“There’s really been no strong need for them to go very fast, and they have to do a lot of science,” Gu said of current rovers. “But the other reason they can’t go very fast is because they are not very autonomous. The onboard software just isn’t capable of that kind of driving. One of the limiting factors is that they really don’t have a very powerful computer on board. That’s partly because of the limitations of spaceflight. The components have to be radiation-hardened and be able to tolerate a lot of stress.” 

NASA’s next step in 2022 is to send a rover much like Curiosity that will drill rocks, collect samples and store them in tubes. Then in 2026 or 2028, a rover known now only as “Fast Traverse” will go on a mission called the Mars Sample Return and pick up those waiting samples before loading them on a basketball-size carrier that will wait for a spacecraft to take it back to Earth. This is the rover that could use Cataglyphis’ thinking, the pieces of software that help him search. 

“It’s a little bit sci-fi, but it’s cool, right?” Gu says. 

Cataglyphis

WVU Robotics team members prepare for the NASA Sample Return Challenge in Worcester, Mass. in 2016 (Photo by Jennifer Shephard).

Cataglyphis is unique. But he has a lot to achieve. This sample-collecting robot has to be smart. Super smart. Past rovers, like Curiosity, were only able to communicate with Earth — so scientists could course-correct or make adjustments — about once per day. Which would be something like having an autonomously driving car you could only steer out of danger and toward your destination once every 24 hours or so. Because of the aging Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft that hosts a telecommunication system that sends signals from the rovers on the surface of Mars to NASA on Earth, the future sample-collecting rover will probably get even stricter phone privileges.

Add to that the fact that the proposed sample-return mission will be in a much tighter timeframe — just 148 sols (or four months on Earth) before the brutal Mars winter and dust season make travel impossible for a solar-powered robot.

Gu says, while designing and testing prototype Mars rovers and winning accolades is fun and adds clout to the robotics program at WVU, the life experience for students is really what matters. “We are creating opportunities for students to work in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the summer,” he says. “This will advance their careers and build even better future interaction between WVU students and NASA.” 

“For a lot of them, this is what they want to do with their lives. This is their dream.” 
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