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Vol 56 No. 12 | Oct. 2004
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Professor Spends Summer Working on NASA Faculty Fellowship at JPL

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 or Legoland.

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 CSULB, 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 during which time participants work closely with NASA colleagues on research.

Van Lent's fellowship placed her with JPL's Artificial Intelligence Group on software for 10 weeks, and she collaborated with professional peers on developing 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 spacecraft. Some examples of these spacecraft 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 spacecraft 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 meters. 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."

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." 

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