NASA returned to Mars on April 7 with the 2001 Mars Odyssey Orbiter, which roared into space onboard a Delta II rocket. The spacecraft carries a suite of scientific instruments designed to tell us what makes up the Martian surface and provide vital information about potential radiation hazards for future human explorers.
The 2001 Mars Odyssey mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)NASA's lead center for robotic space exploration of the solar system. Nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, California, JPL also manages the worldwide Deep Space Network, which communicates with spacecraft and conducts scientific investigations from its complexes in California's Mojave Desert, Spain, and Australia.
Mid-year, JPL's director of 10 years, Dr. Edward Stone, announced his retirement, and Dr. Charles Elachi stepped into his position. Dr. Elachi's vision for the laboratory is to continue to do what has never been done before. JPL and NASA exist to envision and then create for the future.
Engineers sharing Dr. Elachi's vision are already creating the technologies of the future, today. Emergency vehicle warning systems, software to help farmers, networks of small sensors to help preserve the environment, wearable personal communications systems, robotic arms to assist with rehabilitation therapies, and lightning-speed computer chips are all in development. Some of these developments will bring about new discoveries and lead in the search for life on other planets, while also providing breakthrough advances in communications, the environment, and even in saving lives.
Some of the people closest to the land, farmers, will be the first to benefit from a new global positioning technology developed to make NASA satellites more efficient and cost-effective. Farmers worldwide are putting the new system to the test through a partnership between JPL and NavCom, a division of the John Deere Company. NavCom licensed the technology from JPL and will be equipping tractors with receivers that will provide location information instantly--a vital tool for precision farming. The technology will allow farmers to navigate fields at night and when visibility is poor. More importantly, with soil sensors and other monitors, it will let them calculate and map out precisely where the field may need more water, fertilizer, or weed control, saving both time and money.
In Alaska, tiny sensor pods that
resemble a child's toy form a sensor web that will help monitor
the environment along the Alaskan pipeline. Alyeska, Inc., is
currently working with JPL engineers to adapt their sensor web
technology to monitor for oil leaks and preserve the natural
habitat along the 800-mile (1288-kilometer) stretch of pipe.
The pods communicate with each other, creating a virtual presence
allowing large areas to be monitored continuously. Unlike remote
operations, sensor webs are placed inside the environment, thus
making them capable of sensitive, on-site measurements not possible
from satellites. Last year, a prototype sensor web was tested
and "planted" in gardens here on Earth in preparation
for missions to help monitor potential biological activity on
In space, a wearable computer system with audio and video capability may someday be available to astronauts. The Wireless Augmented Reality Prototype (WARP) system will include a lightweight headpiece equipped with a miniature display, two-way real-time audio, and video capability. Finally, just what every astronaut needs, a wearable communicator unit. This system will allow crewmembers onboard the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station to communicate via video and audio transmission. The system will allow astronauts to get instant data from remote computers through an eyepiece, freeing their hands for other jobs. On Earth, the potential uses are endless. Imagine owning your own wearable personal communications system.
Earlier this year, JPL engineers and UCLA neurophysiologists teamed up to create a prototype, robot-like device that, when complete, will be used in a rehabilitation program that could potentially help wheelchair-bound people take their first steps. The device, still in the developmental phase, could be part of clinical trials in about three years. This same device could also be useful to astronauts in maintaining their ability to walk safely following prolonged periods in micro-gravity, such as extended missions on the International Space Station.
Defying traditional laws of physics, researchers may have found a way to blast through roadblocks on the highway to faster and smaller computers. Using modern quantum physics, researchers discovered that entangled pairs of light particles, called photons, can act as a single unit, but perform with twice the efficiency. This research could enable us to continue upgrading computers even after traditional manufacturing procedures have been exhausted.
New JPL technology developments hold promise for the coming year. A hopping robot on wheels, an artificial ear made of nanotubes, machines with human-like vision, and computers that think for themselves are just a few. Many of the technologies currently under research and development will have non-space related benefits. A hand-held device to measure a patient's eye to get a blood glucose reading; a laser that could perform a spinal tap; and a nicotine patch that measures calcium loss, which could be a useful tool in the prevention and mitigation of osteoporosis, are all being considered and may be possible in the years to come.
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