Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
BYU mechanical engineering student Neil Hinckley works on H.A.L. at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville Friday.

HANKSVILLE — H.A.L. the Mars rover peers out across the vast nothingness that surrounds the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, a tiny speck among the imposing red-rock hills. He tilts his head from left to right as if to survey the situation and slowly turns his eyes, two bottle-cap-like cameras, to look Neil Hinckley straight in the face.

Hinckley and eight other Brigham Young University students designed and built the 35-pound rover as their idea of an aid to astronauts when the space program begins conducting human expeditions to Mars, he said. The rover is controlled by radio signals.

"I've always enjoyed playing with remote-controlled toys," said Hinckley, grinning as he tinkered with the rover's motor.

BYU's rover will take on other prototypes built by students from three universities today in the first-ever University Mars Rover Challenge, sponsored by the Mars Desert Research Station.

The research station itself, located a twisty nine miles from civilization, is designed to simulate a human expedition to Mars. From the design of the podlike building, which "could very well be used on Mars one day," to an on-site water recycling system, the Mars Desert Research Station is the closest thing to Mars on this side of the solar system, said Kevin Sloan, chairman of the University Mars Rover Challenge.

"We are trying to develop the best way to do work on Mars," he said. "Geologists are used to being able to bend down, pick rocks up, feel them — some crazy geologists like to lick them. But on Mars, the entire way you do field science has to change."

BYU's team took this into account when it started work on H.A.L. in January, said Miles Atkinson, an environmental geology major who worked on the project.

"We pretty much designed the rover to do what we can do in the field if we are walking around," he said.

The rover is equipped with a magnifying camera that allows Atkinson and his team to analyze details of the landscape close up. The camera, perched atop the rover's mechanical arm, is similar to the magnifying lenses geologists commonly carry during field studies, he said.

H.A.L.'s best feature, though, is his eyes — twin cameras positioned to create depth perception the same way human eyes do, said Hinckley, a mechanical engineering major.

The rover's driver, Todd Reeder, also a mechanical engineering major, will sit inside the research station today where he cannot see the rover. He will direct H.A.L.'s movements behind 3D video goggles, using two joy sticks.

"With two joy sticks, goggles and almost 14 computers, it's a nerd fest," Atkinson said, laughing.

The rovers will complete two challenges today as they explore the desert landscape. First teams will be judged on the quality and quantity of information they gather using the rovers to conduct a scientific field study. Then they will be required to position a radio transmitter amid the rocks. Scientists have flown in from around the country to judge the events.

BYU's team was a little stressed Friday as members huddled in the shade of a makeshift canopy in 100-degree weather. They were having trouble working out last-minute kinks in H.A.L.'s temperamental software.

Hinckley, a senior at BYU, said the machine sometimes does things it hasn't been told to do.

"Once we sent it a real signal it didn't know what to do," he said. "It was confused by all the fake signals."

That's how the rover got its name. Because of its erratic behavior, H.A.L. reminded the team of the notably unpredictable robot on the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Even so, the team was hopeful its little rover would pull through in today's competition. Students have put in as much as 20 hours a week working on the project.

"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," Hinckley said. "That's the nature of research."