The robotic vehicle tooling around the dry, rocky landscape on a recent spring day might not have been capturing images of Mars, but it might as well have been. And the people remotely controlling the vehicle and viewing those images via internet and satellite transmissions might not have been NASA scientists, but they sure felt like they were.

On this day, Mars was really an ancient lake bed in Southern California’s Mojave Desert. And the scientists behind the controls? They were actually high school students from as near as Los Angeles and as far away as upstate New York.

Students in four cities–Los Angeles, Phoenix, Ithaca, N.Y., and St. Louis (LAPIS for short)–were selected to participate in the field testing of NASA’s newest Mars exploration vehicle, called FIDO, or Field Integrated Design and Operations rover.

“It’s important to excite young people about space exploration and discovery, and these tests provide an excellent educational opportunity,” said Dr. Raymond Arvidson, a geologist at Washington University in St. Louis and mission director for the NASA rover field tests.

FIDO–a 150-pound, $150 million vehicle–is a prototype for the rovers that NASA plans to use in actual missions early next century. The rover development and Mars missions are being managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

The participating schools were Bellmont and Marshall high schools in Los Angeles, Highland High School in Phoenix, Lansing High School in Ithaca, and the Mary Institute St. Louis Country Day School.

The students planned, carried out, and archived their own FIDO mission using the internet.

The LAPIS team had two months to prepare for their two-day mission, conducted April 28 and 29. Their preparation included extensive training on the telemetry software they would later use to send commands to FIDO.

Called Web Interface for Telescience (WITS), the state-of-the-art, web-based commanding tool will be used by NASA scientists to direct a Mars rover during real missions scheduled for the years 2003 and 2005.

“The most unique thing about this project is that the students are truly involved in cutting edge technology–the same technology that will be used in actual NASA missions,” said Nathan Peck, science department chairman of the St. Louis Country Day School.

But the LAPIS team had a mission of its own to accomplish. They were to be the first students ever to get the chance to remotely operate a real NASA/JPL rover.

While some of the students were on-site to document the field test, others set up mission controls in their classrooms.

From Hollywood to Ithaca, the students logged on to the internet and took turns using WITS to control the rover. Various high-tech cameras relayed images from the desert floor back to the students–just as they will relay images back to Earth when a rover actually explores the surface of Mars.

The students tested FIDO’s capability to travel over different types of terrain. They looked for evidence of fossils on the dry lake bed using a microscopic imager and explored the area beyond the test site using FIDO’s panoramic camera.

Students in each city had specific responsibilities for the LAPIS mission.

The Los Angeles students were responsible for the on-site field documentation of the FIDO tests. The Phoenix students managed the program’s educational outreach activities. The Ithaca students developed the mission plan, and the St. Louis students maintain the LAPIS web site and field test data archives.

Peck said the entire mission will be chronicled on CD-ROM for distribution to other schools.

FIDO Science Server

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

LAPIS Student Mission