Computer Professionals Program Newsletter
Master of Science in Computer Science

Maharishi University of Management, USA

Maharishi University of Management
Fairfield, Iowa
52557 USA
(641) 472-1153

June 2013

Working on Mars

Recently the University was pleased to host a leader of the US unmanned interplanetary space program. At the invitation of Maharishi University of Management President Dr. Bevan Morris, Elsa Jensen used her precious (and rare) vacation time to visit the campus and give two public addresses to the Fairfield community.

A native of Denmark, Ms. Jensen is Mission Operations Manager for Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. The company has developed, built, and is now operating the science camera systems on board NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Elsa has worked on five planetary missions with NASA, including four to Mars and one currently en route to Jupiter.

During her talk with MUM Computer Science graduate students, Ms. Jensen presented an overview of Curiosity's mission, with special attention to the challenges of large scale software development, and the enormity of undertaking the most complex Mars exploration mission in history. She asked our students to contact her with ideas, and mentioned that she is currently hiring programmers.

Elsa's team placed 4 cameras on Curiosity. Two Mast cameras supply panoramic stereo color imaging. The Descent Imager acquired live video during the dramatic landing on Mars, and the fourth camera is a Microscopic Imager located on the end of a 2 meter arm extending in front of the rover, called the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). The Mastcams and MAHLI have significantly greater capabilities than previous rover cameras: full-color photography, adjustable focus, video, and the MAHLI even has lights for night time and UV images.

Elsa describing the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI).

Working with NASA on space exploration requires tremendous dedication and flexibility.

Elsa and her team need to work when conditions on Mars are right. Because Mars takes a little over 2 years to orbit the sun, and earth requires 1 year, the relative positions of the two planets are always changing. During the first three months after landing, project staff had to adjust their earth work hours every day to accommodate the Mars rover work day. As a result, they sometimes began work in the earth morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and other times they didn't begin a day's work until the middle of the earth night, and then had to try and sleep during the day.

At any one time there can be as many as 1000 scientists, engineers, programmers, and technicians in many countries involved in Curiosity operations. It is an enormous task to coordinate people, computer systems, database and applications access, Internet connections, and organizations with NASA administration.

Another challenge caused by the varying distances between earth and Mars is delays in communication. When the two planets are closest, it takes around 5 minutes for a signal from one planet to reach the other. When the planets are furthest apart, communications take about 21 minutes. Round-trip communication time is twice as long.

Value of the TMĀ® technique for Scientists and Engineers

Ms. Jensen spoke enthusiastically of the value of her Transcendental Meditation practice in making it possible to manage huge job demands. She learned TM one week before Curiosity landed on Mars--just in time to handle the flood of work once landing occurred. In particular, she spoke of the benefits of TM for programmers, because TM practice cultures the ability to focus sharply on details while simultaneously maintaining comprehension of the totality of a project. Elsa would very much like to see more of her team members practicing the TM technique.

Elsa commented that interacting with the students at MUM and the Maharishi School was an enlightening experience, and she felt that she learned as much from them as they did from her. Elsa hopes that she will get to work with some of these students on NASA missions in the future. "We need young people who are learning to approach problems from many angles at the same time, to come and work on the really tough problems we are facing in Space Exploration. The training and capacity that students are receiving at MUM to simultaneously apply technical and creative problem solving will be highly beneficial in our field. I encourage all of the students here to literally Reach for the Stars!"

MSCS students attending the lecture had an eye-opening experience. Sergio Muriel Echavarria commented, "I feel fortunate to have seen this amazing lecture. As a programmer, it was fascinating to learn how NASA and outside contractors provide systems for handling such a large, complex scientific mission on Mars."

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