It rocks, it rolls, it boogies. Mattel Inc.'s Hot Wheels JPL Sojourner Mars Rover Action Pack Set, a toy version of Sojourner, a mini-rover destined to traverse the Martian soil starting July 4, recreates the real robot's distinctive, six-wheeled, "rocker- bogie" locomotion system. The toy, now available nationwide, is but one example of how the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Technology Affiliates Program works cooperatively with industry.
Through this program, corporations form strategic alliances with JPL either to license intellectual property, as was the case with Mattel, or to gain access to JPL's engineers and scientists to help solve a range of technological problems. To date, more than 120 companies, large and small, have utilized the program to solve upwards of 200 specific technology challenges.
In short, the program provides a streamlined way for JPL, one of 10 NASA centers around the country, to do business with the private sector. The payoff: technologies developed for the space program prove beneficial back on Earth and, in the case of the Mattel toy, help educate and enthuse the public about the space program.
"We are pleased to have forged an alliance with Mattel through our Technology Affiliates Program," says Merle McKenzie, manager of JPL's Commercial Technology Office. "Who could help but become intrigued by the Mars Pathfinder mission, scheduled to land on Mars on July 4 and set Sojourner free to explore the red planet, after seeing this intricately accurate mini-version of the mission's mini-rover?"
She adds, "When Mattel first approached us in 1995 with the idea of creating a toy based on Sojourner, the Technology Affiliates Program significantly streamlined the process of licensing this technology. The program is designed precisely to cut red tape and get things moving along swiftly."
JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology, which serves as the party of record on all patents developed at JPL and works closely with JPL on Technology Affiliates Program agreements.
Mars Pathfinder is one of the first missions in a new, decade-long NASA program of robotic exploration to expand scientists' knowledge of Mars. The unifying theme throughout the decade is the search for water, which is a key requirement for life. Sojourner, the first rover ever to explore the Martian surface, will not only take close-up images of the Martian terrain but also will measure the composition of the rocks and surface soil, determining their mineralogy.
Sojourner's many innovations include miniature electronics and the ability to decide on its own whether to climb over rocks up to its own height of 0.3 meters (one foot) or to circumnavigate larger ones. Its "rocker-bogie" suspension is unique in that it does not use springs. Rather, its joints bend and conform to the contour of the ground, providing the greatest degree of stability for traversing rocky, uneven surfaces. A six- wheeled chassis was chosen over a four-wheeled design because it provides greater stability.
Many of these fascinating features have been captured in the Mattel toy. "We hope this does indeed turn out to be a big hit," says McKenzie. "After all, what better way to inform the public about the space program and get everyone enthused about the marvelous technology it has inspired?"
For further information about JPL's Technology Affiliates Program, visit their web site at http://techtrans.jpl.nasa.gov/tu.html
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