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Illinois connection helping to drive Mars rover

October 29, 2012 5:11:14 AM PDT
Since its landing on Mars in early August, NASA's rover Curiosity has been sending back extraordinary pictures that may tell us whether the red plant was ever life-friendly, and from that we'll no doubt learn more about our own planet.

What you may not know is that there is an Illinois connection, both human and mechanical, to the machine on Mars.

When someone asks University of Illinois graduate Scott Maxwell what he does for a living, he says, "Why, I'm a rover driver." And they say, "What?" And then he tells them about a job he considers "way cool" to the exponential power.

"I come in and my job is I reach my hand across 100-million miles of emptiness and I move something on the surface of another plant," Maxwell said. "That never gets old."

Scott Maxwell reaches into space at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California, where in early August there was significant nail-biting until Curiosity, the six-heel, one-ton, moving science lab landed successfully on the surface of Mars.

Maxwell was part of the jubilation that night, and now - each day, on a schedule linked to the Martian clock - he works as one of Curiosity's drivers from afar.

"Because Earth and Mars are so far apart in the night sky, it takes several minutes for the signals to go either way, so we can't drive unilaterally," he said.

So this is not driving by joy stick. What happens is the science team decides each day what it would like Curiosity to do. They practiced this with a prototype - in the Mars yard outback. The drivers plot the course, and then send computer commands to the rover as part of a daily email to-do list.

Recently, Curiosity sent back this picture of a one-time streambed leading scientists to conclude that water once "flowed" on Mars.

"What I find fascinating about this is that we have people on the team who can look at rocks and tell you what this area of the planet was doing a billion years ago," Maxwell said.

He arrived in 1994, recruited out of the University of Illinois as he wrapped up his masters in computer science. He didn't know that his interview enthusiasm would help him land his dream job.

"And they asked me why would I want to work for NASA, and I just lit up and said, 'It's the coolest thing in the world. Are you kidding me?'"

Apart from a driver who moves Curiosity on Mars, the rover also has a mechanical connection to Illinois.

Curiosity requires a lot of gears to move its drive trains and robotic arm.

They were made in Roscoe, Illinois - near Rockford - at forest city gear - a 57 year old family run business where Amy Sovina had to sign off on every titanium gear.

"It's just amazing to have something that far away that's successful, doing what it's supposed to do," she said. "And to have that chance to work on a project like this is impressive."

Forest City made the gears for both the rover and the sky crane that dropped it onto Mars. Before those gears left the plant for the planet, the boss allowed workers and visitors to touch them.

"After they'd fingered and touched them, I'd say, 'Now I can tell you, your DNA is going to go to Mars,'" said Fred Young, Forest City Gear CEO.

Finding Mars' DNA is Curiosity's scheduled two-year mission. Is there organic evidence that some form of life existed? If so, how, why and when did it end, and what might that mean for the planet we're on?

Meanwhile, the gears from Roscoe, Illinois are working fine in the cold atmosphere of Mars and rover driver Scott Maxwell - who calls himself "a chauffeur for science" reports to work again Monday.

On Mars time, to drive a vehicle on a planet 100-million miles away.


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