UMBC students will do the work of NASA engineers today

A satellite will focus cameras on campus guided by sensors set up for a class project


Sometime this morning, a NASA satellite will focus its cameras on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus - steered there by sensors that were scattered yesterday on a hallway floor of the school's Engineering Building.

The photograph might be obscured by clouds, but the message to Mohamed Younis' students will be clear: They have what it takes to do the kind of work that NASA does.

The sensors, each about the size of a matchbox, were programmed as part of a class project organized by Younis, a computer science professor and expert on sensor networks.

The students got to borrow an orbiting NASA satellite thanks to a friendship Younis forged with NASA engineer Dan Mandl last summer, when Younis was completing a fellowship at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Mandl oversees Goddard's Earth Observer I, a satellite launched five years ago to test the latest space imaging equipment.

"We stayed in touch, and I thought, why not start working together on something that would give some of these students an idea of what NASA does?" Mandl said.

Younis' Sensor Networks class deals with the basics of building and maintaining the kinds of sensor networks that are a key to robotics, satellites and the technology behind many fire and burglar alarms systems.

"They have all kinds of applications," said Karthikeyan Ravichandran, one of the students. "It's the kind of thing that if you learn it, you can actually use it."

Sensor networks are vital in space exploration, particularly with much of NASA's future focus on manned missions to the moon and Mars, Mandl said.

"These are the kinds of devices that are extremely useful if you want to get to the moon or to Mars, where there are no electrical outlets or plugs and you don't know what kind of terrain you're dealing with," he said.

For his project, one group of students scattered six sensors on a hallway floor to show how they could send a signal over a wireless network to alert a computer to changes in temperature from a fire or volcano on a distant planet.

Sending a message

When someone placed a hand on the sensor, raising temperatures enough to send a message to a nearby laptop, the computer in turn sent a message to a NASA Web site that will direct the Earth Observer satellite to take images of the location, along with the rest of the UMBC campus in Catonsville.

With today's weather forecast calling for a mix of icy precipitation, the photographs aren't likely to be detailed. "It's been so cloudy lately I don't know how much of the campus we'll actually be able to see," Mandl said.

In another demonstration yesterday, students programmed the sensors so that a NASA Mini Rover, also supplied by Mandl, could navigate through simulated "hot spots" in hazardous terrain.

A third group showed how a sensor that failed or was shut off could send a distress signal that brought the rover to take photos of the site.

The $10,000 rover, one of three at Goddard, is normally used by NASA engineers for just such testing, Mandl said.

Testing networks

NASA engineers are testing a variety of sensor networks to determine the best ways to send probes - and eventually manned space flights - to the moon and Mars, Mandl said.

"There are people getting paid a lot more money to do exactly what these people just did," Mandl said after yesterday's demonstration. "There's really very little difference."

The students will conduct similar demonstrations tomorrow at Goddard, where test facilities include a sandy terrain designed to simulate conditions on the moon and Mars.

Several students said they weren't sure whether they would find jobs using what they learned in the class.

But a few expressed interest in designing and building sensor networks, possibly for NASA or other agencies.

"Definitely my dream job would be working in some sort of capacity with robotics," said Andrew Wilson, 22, a senior majoring in computer engineering.

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