LAWRENCE — Massive amounts of data generated by the Mars rover Curiosity can pose a challenge for the NASA scientists and engineers tasked with the daily operations of the spacecraft. Each day Curiosity is on the Martian surface, the NASA team learns more about how the rover responds to commands and how to control it with more precision.
That leads to an enormous accumulation of data that provides a valuable roadmap for an engineer looking for specific details on how Curiosity performed during a certain task. The challenge to ensure operations run efficiently has been locating those details in a scattered patchwork of individual workstations or stockpiled in diverse computer servers
Enter Ryan Endres. The University of Kansas School of Engineering student from DeSoto spent the summer of 2013 as an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., compiling this data and writing computer code to create a searchable, centralized database readily available for NASA engineers seeking specific information on any of the rover’s previous activities.
“I created a wiki page and wrote several programs that allow users to easily search data on every aspect of Curiosity’s operations,” Endres said. “Say a user wants to know how far the rover drove on a certain day. They scan use-cases for mobility, which provides them with a specific link. They click on it, and all that information is right there. The programs link to several locations, so a user can find information in several ways from different places. It’s simple and easy.”
Endres’ program continuously pulls the latest data from Curiosity, ensuring the most recent information is readily available for the project team.
“The rover project could go on for a decade. If you’re a worker who comes in during year four, you won’t know the history of what the rover did, or the commands that ran it, so by providing this database, that worker can easily search for all the different data sets and tailor the information to their needs,” Endres said.
Endres, a junior in aerospace engineering, was one of 500 students from colleges across the nation selected to participate in JPL’s summer internship program. He spent 10 weeks writing code and testing the computer programs for Curiosity’s searchable database. A connection through a long-time family friend helped him get a foot in the door, but Endres is quick to credit a well-rounded experience at KU for helping land the internship.
“They told me if they were just interested in getting students with a 4.0 grade point average, they could go to the California Institute of Technology (which is less than 10 miles from JPL) and get a bunch of them,” Endres said. “But they want to see that you take initiative, that you have interests outside of school, that you’re well-rounded and you’re becoming a leader. So from the SELF Program, to being president of the KU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, to running marathons – they were impressed with all that I’d done at KU. I’ve got a diverse background, and that’s important.”
Endres spent about 30 hours a week on his programming projects and the other 10 on a variety of tasks, including networking and listening to speakers.
“They really encourage student bonding and participation in the JPL community. They do a lot of little things to make it a great experience,” Endres said. “There were also wonderful networking opportunities. I was encouraged to meet engineers from a variety of disciplines to get a sense of their daily responsibilities in order to help me later on as I prepare to make career choices.”
The 500 students at JPL for the summer came from a variety of the hard sciences, not just engineering. And while many of them were from some of the most elite schools in the country, Endres said his time KU had him prepared to make significant contributions.
“I matched up well with people there. I knew how to do things or how to approach situations from a leadership standpoint that other people didn’t,” Endres said. “We might not be a top five school in the rankings, but what we have here at KU is really special. The experiences here are what make people so excited about being a Jayhawk. It made me see that this is an extremely rare and special place.”