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JPL intern helped figure out how to drive Curiosity rover on Mars

August 13, 2012 |  9:05 am

More photos: Inside the Mars landing at JPL

One intern at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory can do a little more than put his time there on his resume. Riley Avron, 19, can actually say he helped engineers figure out how to drive Curiosity on Mars.

A few months ago, JPL engineers ran into a problem as they prepared to land Curiosity.

To maneuver one of the rover's test doubles across the Mars Yard at the agency's La Cañada Flintridge headquarters, engineers had to spend several minutes typing out lines of code, their eyes locked on a laptop screen instead of the vehicle.

PHOTOS: Inside the Mars landing at JPL

Avron, one of 450 interns at the lab and 30 on the Mars project, helped create an iPhone app that allows rover drivers to plug in a distance and direction and then hit go, the Pasadena Sun reported.

Avron's app uses a WiFi connection to make contact with Scarecrow, one of the models for Curiosity. He coded about 8,000 lines in 10 weeks to get the app running. It has become a crucial tool for engineers and has been placed on JPL's internal app store.

"If you're sitting there fussing with your computer ... you kind of forget what you're even there for," Avron said. "You want to watch the rover and know what's happening."

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

Avron is one of the many students who come to JPL from across the country to get a jump start on a career in science, with financial support from researchers and organizations including the National Science Foundation and the Planetary Society.

"We start at the high school level," said Adrian Ponce, a manager at JPL's education office. "And if they keep coming back, they move down the pipeline. We keep our eyes out for superstars."

This summer was Avron's third at JPL. He started after his junior year at North Hollywood High School, and is now entering his sophomore year at Purdue University, where he studies electrical engineering.

It is common for interns to come back year after year, and Ponce said that helps in the tough competition for a permanent job. "If you make a positive impact when you're here as an intern, it definitely increases your chances of getting hired," Ponce said.

Avron said he would like a shot at that someday. "Sending a rover to Mars is just the coolest thing," he said. "So, obviously, JPL has to be right up there on my list of idolized organizations."


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-- Tiffany Kelly, Times Community News

Photo: Riley Avron, 19, a Purdue University Student and a recent intern at JPL, holds an iPhone with the app he created to control the test rover Scarecrow, pictured behind him. Credit: Tim Berger / Times Community News