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Computer Science Intern Connects Real & Virtual Space

Computer Science Intern Connects Real & Virtual Space JPL intern Heriberto Reynoso and NASA/JPL robotics software engineer Matt DiCicco review Reynoso's software project for a possible moon lander mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL


July 14, 2010

Heriberto Reynoso's summer internship is taking him one step closer to the moon. Reynoso is working with the Mobility and Manipulation group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build software that will help engineers on a proposed mission called MoonRise. The mission would be the first U.S. and NASA robotic mission to return lunar samples to Earth.

Reynoso is one of nearly 50 JPL summer interns who are computer science majors. His project is to develop a graphical user interface, or GUI, that engineers can use on a hand"held touch screen to easily manipulate the proposed lunar lander's robotic arm.

For Reynoso, who will start his senior year this fall at the University of Texas, Brownsville, the combination of software and robotics goes to the heart of what he loves. "Robotics jump-starts my mind," he says. "I've built nine robots since my sophomore year in high school. I like it because it combines all fields: computer science, chemistry, materials, mechanical and electrical engineering."

The highlight of Reynoso's internship will come in August. He and his mentor, NASA/JPL robotics software engineer Matt DiCicco, will use Reynoso's interface on a prototype robotic arm at JPL. The MoonRise mission, if it moves forward, would send a robotic lander to the moon's South Pole-Aitken basin, which is the oldest and deepest observable basin on the moon. The mission would return samples to Earth that would help determine the chronology of impacts recorded in the rocks. The samples would also indicate the variations in composition of materials in the basin deposits.

Reynoso's software expertise will also be used to help prepare for a possible future rover mission to Mars. He will work in JPL's Mars Yard to help test software and hardware on a prototype Mars rover before it gets field"tested in the fall.

By applying computer science to robotic missions like MoonRise and Mars rovers, Reynoso is going in the direction he wants his career to take him: "When I was a kid, I was very creative with LEGOs. Then I started taking apart old household appliances to create neat gadgets. Later, I converted my parents' garage into my very own robotics workshop! Of course, my parents did not take it lightly, nor did they ever admit that they loved staying up late into the night helping me out on crazy projects."

Computer science offers many avenues in the field of space exploration. According to JPL's Mark Maimone, who has a Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, "JPL computer scientists do lots of things. We build robots, design all kinds of systems with automated or manual control and manage the huge amounts of data they generate. Tools like the GUI Heriberto is working on help us visualize remote operations. This is especially important because they allow us to understand complex robotic operations at a glance. The more quickly we understand, the more we can accomplish." Maimone developed the flight software that enables NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers and the Mars Science Laboratory (currently being built at JPL) to drive safely even in the presence of unforeseen obstacles.

In addition to attending college and fulfilling his dream job at JPL, Reynoso gives his time to community service. Last year, he showcased his robots and inspired students across south Texas in 22 different schools and events. Reynoso never had a mentor so he loves mentoring students for competitions and projects. "I learned it the hard way," he says. "I've experienced countless failures but through determination, ambitious dreams and passion, even the impossible seems possible."

Reynoso successfully applied to NASA's Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology program, or MUST, last summer and this summer for his JPL internships. He plans to return next year to JPL to continue working in computer science and robotics. After college, Reynoso plans to focus on robotics for graduate school and his Ph.D.

For more information about internship opportunities at JPL, go to http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/education/internships/ .