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November 19, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, November 19, 2004

Making the most of Mars visit Making the most of Mars visit (November 19, 2004)

NASA scientist cited for tool used to guide rovers

By Roseanne Pereira

"July 14, 1969. The moment is still in my mind," Kanna Rajan said, remembering how, as a child, he looked up at the moon and could hardly believe that Neil Armstrong was actually there.

Rajan, a 42-year-old Mountain View resident for the past eight years, was recently awarded the Exceptional Service Medal from NASA.

Rajan began his life in India mesmerized by historic events that challenged what seemed possible. As a child in the 1970s, Rajan would take a bus to New Delhi, where he sat in the auditorium of the U.S. Information Agency and watched images sent from the Viking missions to Mars.

But it was the sheer challenge of trying to simulate the human mind that drew Rajan, as a student, to the subject of artificial intelligence. His work in this field eventually led him to his position as a researcher at NASA Ames and the leader of a team designing a tool to assist the Mars rover missions.

The device Rajan helped create is an automated planning and scheduling tool that helps negotiate the rovers' available resources with the desires of various scientists. The Mixed Initiative Activity Plan Generator (MAPGEN) allows scientists to command the Mars rovers and select where to send them to achieve the most optimal science.

NASA estimates MAPGEN, with Rajan's leadership, contributed to an increase in science productivity of more than 20 percent, the feat that earned him the NASA award.

Rajan's machine relies on "mixed-initiative" planning, which allows for both human and computer collaboration. Each rover by itself, Rajan said, "is a fairly dumb machine, not a machine with a lot of intelligence on board."

Because the rovers are solar-powered, a limiting factor for how much the rovers can do, is time. When the rovers sleep, scientists and engineers work tirelessly throughout the night using MAPGEN to figure out where on Mars to send it next.

As a scientist, Rajan said he does not work for short-term rewards and pleasures, but for long-term ones. He's pursuing the same mystifying questions today that engaged him early in life.

Rajan feels strongly that further government investment in space research is needed because of what space can teach humans about themselves. Understanding the geological makeup of Mars has given clues to understanding how the Earth evolved.

Rajan remembers the day a NASA colleague compared data from Mars and the Colorado River to announce that water had been found on Mars. As Rajan said, "How different planets have evolved tells us who we are, our place in the universe, fundamentally."
@email:E-mail Roseanne Pereira at [email protected]

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