Campus: CSU Long Beach -- September 24, 2004
Computer Engineering/Computer Science Professor at Cal State Long
Beach Spends Summer Working on NASA Faculty Fellowship at JPL in Pasadena
For most people, an ideal summer vacation involves suntan lotion and a beach
resort along the Pacific Ocean, a camping getaway in the mountains with family and
friends or even amusement park visits with names like Disney, Universal, Sea World
For Colleen van Lent, however, the past summer gave her an opportunity to broaden
her academic horizons as she spent time in a different type of amusement park,
one that surely appeals to the engineering set - NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
(JPL) in Pasadena.
An assistant professor of computer engineering/computer science (CECS) at Cal State
Long Beach, van Lent received a NASA Faculty Fellowship award through a program
jointly managed by the American Society for Engineering Education and the Universities
Space Research Association.
The NASA Faculty Fellowship Program (NFFP) offers hands-on exposure to NASA's
research challenges through 10-week summer research residencies at participating
NASA research centers for full-time science and engineering faculty at U.S. Colleges
and universities. Participants work closely with NASA colleagues on research
during the summer months.
Professor van Lent's fellowship placed her with JPL's Artificial Intelligence Group
on software for 10 weeks, and she collaborated with professional peers on the
development of software that is supposed to significantly improve NASA's ability
to manage its Deep Space Network.
NASA's Deep Space Network consists of three large (up to 70 meters in diameter)
networked antennas located in the Mojave Desert, Madrid, Spain, and Australia.
These antennas are responsible for uplink and downlink communication with all
deep-space spacecrafts. Some examples of these spacecrafts include Voyager, the
Mars Exploration Rovers, and Cassini -- the spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn.
"Many major decisions concerning the spacecraft are dictated by ground users, so
there is a constant uplink of commands," van Lent said. "For instance, if the
Mars rover sees an interesting rock, it asks a human whether or not it should
investigate. If commands cannot be sent, time and resources can be wasted while
the rover waits. In addition, the space craft has limited onboard memory, so if
no antenna is available to receive the periodic downlink of data, the information
will be lost."
NASA's collaboration with van Lent was brought in part by her expertise in the
area of planning and reasoning capabilities of intelligent systems.
"What makes this project interesting is that you have limited resources and
competing interests," van Lent noted. "For example, a spacecraft has a limited
view period -- time that it can link to a particular antenna. So sometimes it must
stop communicating with one antenna as it goes out of view and switch to a new
contact. Some missions require specific resources, for instance a 70-meter antenna
rather than 26 meter. Competition for resources is always an issue.
"Currently, the final step for resolving conflicts for midrange plans (looking
ahead about six months) is still done by hand. An automated system creates a rough
draft and then representatives of each mission meet to iron out conflicts," she
added. "Our goal is to create a new interface that can utilize existing planning
software. This will help minimize the number of conflicts in the first place and
then also break deadlocks, facilitate a fair distribution of resources, and in
general, give the mission specialists more time to concentrate on other matters."
Professor van Lent, who teaches both undergraduate and graduate artificial
intelligence courses within the CECS Department, believes her collaboration with
NASA will not only enrich the content of these courses, but will also help CSULB
students obtain future employment with NASA.
"Currently there are more than a dozen opportunities for CSULB students to work at
NASA and/or JPL", she pointed out. "These range from co-op positions and summer
internships to permanent part-time employment. Students who reside within 50 miles
of JPL can work part-time while going to school. In fact, if they work 20 or more
hours a week they qualify for benefits. In general, it is very difficult to get
a permanent job with JPL after graduation unless you interned previously so getting
an early start is a must. And they take on students from several majors, not just
engineering and computer science."