Missions to Mars are in the news, right now. Maestro, an application build by Sun Microsystems, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories and others is a simulator which allows you to control the Martian rovers in exactly the same environment their operators trained in and later, as pictures come in, you can update Maestro to allow you to run it in the actual Martian environs the real rover is working in.
This is the real thing; The same program used when the rovers are in service. I found it a real joy to use. Installation is relatively straight-forward and the excellent manual will get you up and running in no time. The graphics are stunning, to say the least, and because of the low speeds at which things happen, even a modest video setup on your machine will deliver a great view. The application runs on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X and several Unices. You won't need any special hardware to make it work well. System requirements are low, with 100 MB free disk space being the most stringent.
I advise downloading the 6 MB manual, first. It's in PDF format, which explains some of it's size, and contains a wealth of information. Find it, Maestro itself, forums and help at http://mars.telascience.org . User accounts are free. There is apparently a genuine community growing around this and it is attractive for that reason alone.
Your kids might find this a good school science project. Surely using it will
bring home both the tremendous difficulties and the opportunities of remote
exploration to them.
© 2004 Jack Imsdahl
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