This Independence Day, Sun Microsystems' Java Technology Goes to Mars

NASA's Java-Based Application Lets People (Earthlings) Around the World Participate in Pathfinder Mission to Mars

June 25, 1997 -- This Independence Day, people around the world will become "virtual participants" in NASA's groundbreaking mission to Mars by using an interactive application developed by NASA engineers with Sun Microsystems' Java™ technology. On July 4th, NASA's Pathfinder mission will attempt the historic feat of landing a robotic land rover, nicknamed Sojourner, on the Martian surface.

Web users around the world will be able to use the Web-based application, Web Interface for Telescience (WITS), developed by NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, to interact with the rover as a mission planner would, by sending commands to a simulated rover which will drive over displayed Martian images.

The site is being hosted on a Sun Netra™ j Internet server and mirrored at additional locations around the world, including Sun Microsystems' site on the World Wide Web ( Through the Sun site, viewers will be able to access WITS and view images from the Pathfinder Mars mission.

Already last month, high school students in the U.S. and Finland used WITS as part of a weeklong series of field tests for the research rover, Rocky 7 ( Though based in diverse locations, including Helsinki, Finland and five U.S. cities, the students collaborated via the Internet, planning command sequences for the rover, such as digging and using scientific instruments to determine rock composition.

"Many of us recall the excitement of seeing television images of the first moon landings," said Paul Backes, technical group leader at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and WITS system lead. "Today, we're using Java's interactive capabilities to make the Mars mission a great learning experience for our kids, as they plan their own mission and see what it feels like to control the simulated rover directly from their computer. "It is a great educational and awareness-building tool for NASA," he said.

From a technical standpoint, Backes said the WITS Mars Internet project would not have been possible without Java technology. One of the technical challenges faced by Backes and other robotists is constantly having to develop new graphical user interfaces (GUIs) for each application, as well as spending large amounts of time checking for bugs. According to Backes, Java is a superior language in terms of ease of use both for programmers and users and for security features.

"With the Java application developed by NASA, people around the world will be able to experience the Mars mission in real time on the Internet, exponentially increasing the educational impact of the event," said John Marselle, president of Sun Microsystems Federal. "Having worked successfully with NASA on numerous projects over the years, Sun is thrilled to be part of this latest historical event in space exploration and scientific discovery."

Managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the lead U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system. JPL spacecraft have visited all known planets except Pluto.

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