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Interplanetary Collaboration

Getting scientists to work together can resemble herding (very smart) cats. NASA hopes high-tech white boards will make it happen.
August 5, 2002

When two Mars probes-the Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter-went missing in 1998, a subsequent investigation blamed, among other causes, miscommunication at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). To uncross signals for its next mission to Mars, the agency is turning to experimental electronic white boards that enable scientists to view and annotate images, charts and presentations unlike ever before.

The goal is a flawless mission in January 2004, when NASA will attempt to land a mobile probe, called the Mars Exploration Rover, on the red planet. The first real test is this month, when a NASA operations team will set a small robotic rover down in the Mojave Desert and begin practicing the maneuvers they will perform for real in 2004. Though unmanned, that little rover will have dozens of drivers: Scientists with different areas of expertise and competing research agenda who must agree on where to go and what to study, as well as the roboticists-experts on the rover and its components-who must determine what is feasible.

To get them all on the same page, NASA’s Ames Research Center has adapted the Blueboard, a prototype electronic white board developed by IBM at its Silicon Valley-based Almaden Research Center. Ames calls its version MERBoard, from the acronym for Mars Exploration Rover. The prototype is simple: A transparent touch screen sits atop a five-foot wide plasma monitor, while a notebook computer acts as a thin-client terminal connected to Web server. The total cost of each set-up, including open-source networking software, is roughly $10,000.

“The hardware is all off-the-shelf stuff,” says Jay Trimble, the Ames computer scientist who is leading the effort to adapt the board to the special demands of scientists. “We write the software, but the entire interface is simply wrapped around a Web browser.” To ensure that the MERBoards were cross-platform, Trimble and his team created a new interface in Java to replace Blueboard’s original Visual Basic interface.

Using their fingers or a simple stylus, scientists will be able to open image or data files transmitted from the Mars Exploration Rover then draw annotations or type them in. They can share their reports with the other members of the meeting or absent team members through servers.

For most meetings, the JPL team currently uses paper printouts and blown-up photographic images. MERBoard isn’t designed to replace all the paper inevitably generated by a NASA mission, but to ease information sharing, says Dan Russell, director of the User Sciences and Experience Research division at IBM Almaden, which designed the original Blueboard.

One important result could be to speed up key decisions. The rover’s solar panels cover over with dust in about three months, which causes much tighter deadlines than those to which many researchers are accustomed.

Trimble and his team hope that the MERBoards will improve communication between scientists with different specialties, such as the geology and geochemistry groups. It also should streamline the handover process when one shift of scientists or roboticists takes over from another and needs to update them on the current state of the mission-a procedure necessary to maintain 24/7 (or, given Mars’ longer days, 28/6) coverage of every area.

One question has yet to be answered about the boards’ prospect: Will the people for whom Ames built the MERBoards embrace them? Scientific collaboration is different than other types of collaboration, more group-oriented and less leader-driven. Scientists also tend to be more technologically savvy and demanding than most users.

Trimble and his team have found themselves making the boards gradually more complicated, as scientists request more functions. They added a keyboard, which Blueboard lacked. They also created simple tools for making measurements of images and made it easier to share data with an entire group of people.

Will they turn back to their papers and printouts at the first crisis? Or will they stick with the new technology? “I can’t tell you that every member of the team thinks this is terrific, but it’s still early,” Trimble says. “If they use it for at least some of the functions we’ve intended it for, and a few we hadn’t thought of, that’s a success.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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